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June 04, 2012 11:20 AM The Kids These Days… Might Be Smarter Than We Think

By Aaron Carroll

I know it’s quite popular to bemoan the declining state of youth in America, but I’ve always felt that this country has a habit of acting curmudgeonly. Here’s some data:

About 27 percent of American students drank alcohol during the 30 days prior to the survey. Only Iceland was lower at 17 percent, and the average rate in the 36 European countries was 57 percent, more than twice the rate in the U.S.
The proportion of American students smoking cigarettes in the month prior to the survey was 12 percent—again the second lowest in the rankings and again only Iceland had a lower rate at 10 percent. For all European countries the average proportion smoking was 28 percent, more than twice the rate in the U.S.
“One of the reasons that smoking and drinking rates among adolescents are so much lower here than in Europe is that both behaviors have been declining and have reached historically low levels in the U.S. over the 37-year life of the Monitoring the Future study,” Johnston said. “But even in the earlier years of the European surveys, drinking and smoking by American adolescents was quite low by comparison.

Did you get that? Smoking rates and drinking rates in adolescents are at a 37-year historical low. Oh, the kids these days.

Of course, people will still find things to complain about:

The U.S. students tend to have among the highest rates of use of all of the countries. At 18 percent, the U.S. ranks third of 37 countries on the proportion of students using marijuana or hashish in the prior 30 days. Only France and Monaco had higher rates at 24 percent and 21 percent, respectively. The average across all the European countries was 7 percent, or less than half the rate in the U.S.
American students reported the highest level of marijuana availability of all the countries and the lowest proportion of students associating great risk with its use—factors that may help to explain their relatively high rates of use here, according to Johnston.

Not to minimize anything, but… what great risk? Tobacco is known to impact lung function, causes a host of diseases, including lung cancer, and is perfectly legal. Alcohol is ubiquitous, dangerous, and costly to society. But marijuana had no impact on lung function, and has known beneficial effects. I’m not saying adolescents should all go out and light up a joint, but I’m not sure why we would ding adolescents for not “associating great risk with its use”.

The news isn’t all all roses, though:

The U.S. ranks first in the proportion of students using any illicit drug other than marijuana in their lifetime (16 percent compared to an average of 6 percent in Europe) and using hallucinogens like LSD in their lifetime (6 percent vs. 2 percent in Europe). It also ranks first in the proportion reporting ecstasy use in their lifetime (7 percent vs. 3 percent in Europe), despite a sharp drop in their ecstasy use over the previous decade. American students have the highest the proportion reporting lifetime use of amphetamines (9 percent), a rate that is three times the average in Europe (3 percent). Ecstasy was seen as more available in the U.S. than in any other country.
For some drugs, however, the lifetime prevalence rate in the U.S. was just about the average for the European countries, including inhalants (10 percent), cocaine (3 percent), crack (2 percent), heroin (1 percent) and anabolic steroids (1 percent).

I’d like some data on the health outcomes from this (sometimes one-time) “lifetime” use, as opposed to cigarettes or alcohol, which were measured differently. Even so, we want to work on getting these numbers down.

But let’s face facts. There’s lots of reason to be pleased with our teens. The sky isn’t always falling.

[Cross-posted at The Incidental Economist]

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Aaron Carroll ,MD, is an associate professor of Pediatrics and the associate director of Children’s Health Services Research at Indiana University School of Medicine.