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Teen Drug Abuse Statistics

Debra Wallace, MA.Ed, LPCC-S, LICDC-CS

Medically reviewed by

Debra Wallace, MA.Ed, LPCC-S, LICDC-CS

February 26, 2019

Teenagers face a critical time in their lives when they are learning about themselves and the world around them, while also experiencing developmental changes. Studies show that individuals who begin abusing substances at this age may be far more likely to develop a substance use disorder later in life.

Contending With Pressure

Unfortunately, during this transitional period, youth are often confronted with a variety of pressures pushing them towards substance abuse. Many teens may experience substance abuse influences within the home. As a loved one close to them abuses substances around them, it may make drugs or alcohol more attractive or accessible to teens.

Interaction with peers at school, parties, or other social events has the capacity to highly influence their desire and need to fit in with others. Set against a backdrop where drug or alcohol use is often far too commonplace, this combination may lead some teens down a dangerous path. Beyond this, various media outlets also provide detrimental influences—within their favorite TV show, movie, or band, the prevalence of drugs and alcohol in media may make these substances seem enticing.

Far too often, the media makes light of binge drinking with depictions of games, parties, and laughter in a way that may glorify these behaviors while overlooking the many risks that accompany them. Unfortunately, these messages may serve to confuse teens and encourage harmful habits or behaviors of substance abuse, in a way that may lead to addiction and devastation in many lives.

Teen drug use is a worrisome and dangerous behavior, one that has the capacity to shape their lives for many years to come. According to the Office of Adolescent Health, the most commonly abused substance is alcohol, followed by marijuana and tobacco.

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Alcohol—The Substance Of Choice For Teens

The CDC reports on the “Youth Risk Behavior Survey,” informing us that within the past 30 days, 33 percent of high school students consumed any amount of alcohol, while 18 percent engaged in patterns of binge drinking. The Office of Adolescent Health further expounds on this, noting that 35 percent of high school seniors spoke up that in the last month they had drank some alcohol and that in terms of binge drinking, a shocking 1 in 6 had participated daily within a two-week period.

These numbers are especially troubling when you consider that fact that, as cautioned by the CDC, individuals who start drinking before age 15 are six times more likely to suffer from alcohol abuse or addiction at some point down the road, in comparison to those who start at 21. In comparison, the good news is that the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported that the most recent Monitoring the Future survey shows that overall, “Alcohol use and binge drinking continued to decline among all grades and for nearly all time period measures.” Despite this positive shift, we still need to be mindful and proactive about teen drinking habits.

Stress of life, peer influence, and genetic factors can all be a huge cause of alcohol abuse. A parent or guardian can counter these alcohol abuse risk factors and help prevent many of these harmful behaviors by being aware of their teen’s activities and providing open and accountable forms of communication. What follows are some sobering facts about underage drinking as reported by the CDC. While these numbers do reflect individuals up to age 20, these statistics are still relevant as they do largely contain and speak of teen alcohol abuse behaviors. Within the U.S.:

  • 4,300 deaths occur in underage youth every year due to excessive drinking, costing our country $24 billion in 2010 alone.
  • 11 percent of all alcohol consumed is by 12-20 year-olds, with 90 percent being attributed to binge drinking.
  • Underage drinkers will typically indulge in more drinks in one setting than adult drinkers.
  • In 2010, individuals under 21 witnessed 189,000 emergency room visits due to conditions or injuries tied to alcohol use.

Alcohol abuse endangers users of any age, with particular dangers concerning youth of this age. The following risks are greater with those teens who choose to engage in binge drinking. Due to the way alcohol works on your brain, teens are far more likely to engage in risky behaviors, including unsafe sexual practices, which may result in an STD or unwanted pregnancy; unintentional injuries, such as burns, falls and drowning; other drug use, or operating a vehicle while under the influence or being a passenger of one driven by a person under the influence. A teen that chooses to drive under the influence faces numerous risks, such as being arrested or even hurting or killing themselves or others. In fact, motor vehicle accidents are the top cause of death within this age group, due to the fact that one out of every five teens has been in a car where the driver has consumed alcohol.

When a teenager indulges in alcohol, they can experience a host of different negative impacts within their life, such as: academic struggles, including inferior or failing grades in school and a higher level of absences; a variety of social issues like getting into fights or refusing to participate in youth events, and a higher risk of physical and/or sexual assault. They may also experience hangovers or other illness, including encountering death from alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol changes the way a person thinks and may greatly influence their mental health. In example, there is a much higher risk for underage drinkers of either suicide or homicide. A person’s normal growth and healthy sexual development can oftentimes be disrupted. A teen may experience a memory problem or alterations in the development of their brain, in a way that may impact them in the long run.

Marijuana, A Misinterpreted Drug

According to the Monitoring the Future survey, marijuana is, fortunately, seeing a positive change. Past-year use declined to the lowest number in more than twenty years, over the past five years with 8th and 10th graders, with reported daily use declining from 1.3 to 0.7 percent and from 3.6 to 2.5 percent, respectively. For 12th graders, statistics remain unchanged in respect to numbers from five years ago, maintaining steady at 6 percent for daily use, which equates to 1 in 16 students of this age using.

With regard to the changing scope of medical marijuana laws, this survey details that seniors residing within states with medical marijuana laws do have a higher rate of use. Specifically, in 2016, past-year rates were 38.3 percent in comparison to the 33.3 percent of teens who lived in states holding firm to nonmedical marijuana perspectives. It is worth noting, however, that some studies suggest that these results were true prior to these laws going into effect.

Contrary to what research shows us, many teens still believe the false perception that marijuana use is without danger. Understanding of the risks are yet falling among surveyed high school students, to the extent, as reported by NIDA that now only 31.1 percent of seniors believe it to be harmful in comparison to almost double the amount (58.3 percent) in 2000. Despite this, there is hope, as 68.5 percent of these seniors still reported that “they disapprove of smoking marijuana regularly.”

Tobacco And Teens

Research proves that individuals who begin smoking within their teen years are far more apt to develop an addiction that continues into their adult lives. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids breaks this risk down, citing information from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health that found that “nearly 80 percent of all adult smokers begin smoking by age 18; and 90 percent do so before leaving their teens.” This makes clear that what some teens consider harmless experimentation could actually be behaviors that have the capacity to form a life-altering addiction.

What researchers are finding, is that teens are more apt to use e-cigarettes than traditional cigarettes, in turn increasing their risk of smoking regular cigarettes. The National Institute on Drug Abuse tells us that 30.7 percent of these individuals begin smoking within six months, in comparison to only 8.1 percent of those who had never used an e-cig. Overall, males are more likely to use e-cigs, and seven out of ten teenagers report being exposed to e-cig advertising. In regards to past-month use, students used e-cigarettes to the following extent: 9.5 percent of 8th graders, 14.0 percent of 10th graders, and 16.2 percent of 12 graders. In comparison to this, also in past-month use, these demographics used cigarettes in the following ways: 3.6 percent of 8th graders, 6.3 percent of 10th graders, and 11.4 percent of 12th graders.

Despite this use, what is disconcerting is the lack of awareness surrounding this use. When asked, teens were often unsure of what was in their e-cig, with 66.0 percent of them claiming it was only flavoring, whereas 13.7 percent had no idea, 13.2 percent said it was nicotine, 5.8 percent claimed it was marijuana, and 1.3 percent thought it was other substances. According to NIDA, e-cig ingredients don’t have to be reported by the manufacturer, so those who are using them have no sure way to know what’s in them. The hard facts are that e-cigs can be dangerous.

Illicit Drug Use

This year’s Monitoring the Future survey offers us valuable insight into the drug use and attitudes of America’s 8th, 10th, and 12th graders. Similar to the detrimental perception many youth have surrounding marijuana use, the survey also found that a significant portion of youth mistakenly attribute an inaccurate measure of harm to many forms of illicit drugs. Exact perceptions varied within each grade, but in example 10th graders had a decreased perception of harm in regards to “taking Crack, Vicodin®, or synthetic cathinones occasionally.” These decreased measures of disapproval can be very harmful, as these drugs are very dangerous and may cause a variety of dangers, including for some, death.

On the other hand, in a more positive light, the survey shows an important shift, with “past-year use of illicit drugs other than marijuana continuing to decline to the lowest level in the history of the survey in all three grades—5.4 percent among 8th graders, 9.8 percent among 10th graders, and 14.3 percent among 12th graders.” They continue to tell us that since the survey originated, certain drug use has declined, including “heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, inhalants, and sedatives (reported only by 12th graders).”

Certain others demonstrate a decline over the past five years, including “prescription opioids (reported in the survey as “narcotics other than heroin”), hallucinogens, amphetamines, and over-the-counter cough and cold medications.” To elaborate, NIDA details the survey findings, noting that high school seniors’ prescription opioid abuse dropped from 8.7 percent to 4.8 percent, equating to a 45 percent decrease in five years.

The following are statistics extracted from the survey for 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, respectively, for past-year use (entries are percentage):

  • Hallucinogens: 1.2, 2.9, 4.3
  • Ecstasy (MDMA): 1.0, 1.8, 2.7
  • Cocaine: 0.8, 1.3, 2.3
  • Crack: 0.5, 0.4, 0.8
  • Heroin: 0.3 for all
  • Narcotics other than heroin (only 12th grade reported): 4.8
  • Amphetamines: 3.5, 6.1, 6.7
  • Bath salts: 0.9, 0.8, 0.8
  • Sedatives (only 12th grade reported): 3.0
  • Tranquilizers: 1.7, 4.1, 4.9

Being aware of the activities of your teens is highly important. Providing and maintaining open communication, information, encouragement, and a helping hand can greatly counteract the negative influences your teen may face and enhance their chance of a drug-free life. If your teen does need help, there are always specific options for your teen.

We Can Help You Get Your Teen Help

If you need more information or help, please contact us today at If your teen is struggling with an addiction, we can help you find the best treatment for their specific needs, so that they can begin striving towards a drug-free and more positive life.

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Teens and E-cigarettes

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Fact Sheets- Underage Drinking

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Monitoring the Future 2015 Survey Results

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Monitoring the Future Survey: High School and Youth Trends

Office of Adolescent Health - Substance Abuse

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