U.S. teens are continuing to steer away from tobacco and alcohol, but seem to be warming up to marijuana, possibly because it has legal status as a medicine in some states, federal officials said Wednesday.
"That cigarette use has declined to historically low rates is welcome news, given our concerns that declines may have slowed or stalled in recent years," said Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, referring to data in the NIDA-funded Monitoring the Future survey.
This year's report queried more than 46,000 students from 400 public and private schools on their use and attitudes about substance abuse.
In 2011, some 18.7 percent of high-school seniors told the survey that they had smoked cigarettes in the past month, as did 11.8 percent of 10th-graders and 6.1 percent of eighth-graders. These percentages are the lowest seen since the survey started in 1975.
"This is very good news for the health and longevity of these young people. ... Even a reduction of only one percentage point can translate into thousands of premature deaths being prevented," said University of Michigan research professor Lloyd Johnston, the longtime principal investigator for Monitoring the Future.
Alcohol use in the past year was also at record-low levels. Some 49.8 percent of 10th-graders said they had drank wine, liquor or beer in the past year, as did about 27 percent of eighth-graders.
Most high school seniors still reported that they drank alcoholic beverages in the past year, but this year's percent — 63.4 percent of seniors — was a substantial drop from 1991, when nearly 78 percent of seniors said they imbibed in the past year.
Alcohol "remains the drug of choice" for the nation's youth, noted Dr. Howard K. Koh, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Despite their appreciation for these improvements in teen tobacco and alcohol use, federal officials expressed alarm at the slow but steady increases in marijuana use among 10th- and 12th-graders: Some 28.8 percent of 10th-graders and 36.4 percent of 12th-graders reported using marijuana in the past year, compared to 25.2 percent and 31.5 percent in 2006, respectively.
The adverse effects of marijuana use, especially regarding memory and learning, are well known, Dr. Volkow said. The rise in marijuana use "tells us we cannot become complacent," on the issue, she said.
Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, reiterated concerns that there are confusing messages about marijuana in the culture now that it is legal to use for medical conditions in 16 states and the District of Columbia.
"We have to give kids the right message," which is that using illegal drugs is not a rite of passage — most do not use drugs, Mr. Kerlikowske said.
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