Survey of High School Students Finds Significant Drop in Drug and Alcohol Use

Published: March 21, 2007
Teenage use of alcohol and drugs dropped significantly in New York City in 2005 compared with past years, and is lower than the national rate, but it remains disturbingly high, city officials said yesterday, citing the results of a recently released survey.

The city’s biennial survey found that in 2005, fewer students at the city’s public high schools were drinking or smoking marijuana than at any time since the surveys began in 1997. Use of most harder drugs was roughly unchanged.

But 1.8 percent of students surveyed in 2005 said they had tried heroin at least once, triple the number in 2001.

Lorna Thorpe, a deputy city health commissioner, said that it was not clear why there had been an overall drop in drug and alcohol use, but that it might be connected to a decline in teenage smoking. People who smoke are more likely to use other substances as well.

She said officials were equally unsure of the cause of the rise in heroin use, but that it coincided with a rise in emergency room visits and Emergency Medical Services calls involving heroin.

“That has raised a flag for us, and we’re watching it,” she said. She added that while the data are usually compiled slowly, over more than a year, officials will pay particular attention to the heroin figures as they conduct the 2007 survey.

The change could be tied to the fact that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan greatly curtailed the trade in opium, the raw material for heroin. But the drug became more readily available and cheaper after the regime was overthrown in late 2001.

In 2005, 14 percent of the teenagers surveyed said they had engaged in binge drinking — five or more drinks in the space of a few hours — in the previous month, down from 18 percent in 2001. And 35 percent said they had consumed some alcohol in the last month, down from 41 percent.

Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the city health commissioner, said those numbers, though an improvement, were still worrisome, because using alcohol and other drugs raises the chance of risky behavior like unprotected sex.

White students were far more likely than their black, Hispanic or Asian classmates to engage in binge drinking or to use hard drugs, and a little more likely to smoke marijuana. Staten Island had much higher rates of binge drinking and drug use than the other boroughs.

Marijuana use fell more sharply than use of any other substance: 12 percent of students said they had smoked it in the previous month, down from 18 percent in 2001.

The portion of students who reported using cocaine (1.8 percent) and methamphetamine (2.5 percent) in the previous month was about the same as in earlier surveys.

The city’s survey, conducted jointly by the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, is patterned on a national survey done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

National surveys include students at both public and private schools, while the city’s cover only public schools, which include about 80 percent of the city’s high school population. Because use of alcohol and some drugs are more prevalent among white and affluent students, the city’s surveys may understate the overall rate.

But city officials say they are confident that inclusion of private school students would still show lower rates of drug and alcohol abuse in the city than nationwide. In particular, the most recent national surveys show binge drinking almost twice as common nationally as in the city, and methamphetamine use two to three times as common.

The city’s survey is conducted by choosing a sampling of high schools that is representative of all high schools, and then a representative sampling of classrooms within those high schools. In the selected classrooms, all students take the survey on paper, anonymously.

In all, 8,000 students took the survey in 2003 and 2005, with only 1,500 students taking the survey in earlier years.

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