Federal Data Show Sharp Decrease in Teen Drug Use in 2021

    On December 15, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)—a federal research agency in the United States Department of Health and Human Services—published new data showing a significant decrease in drug use among adolescents in 2021. It’s the largest overall drop in teenagers’ illicit drug use reported in the country since 1975.

    The annual Monitoring the Future survey, conducted by researchers at NIDA and the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, measures the “substance use behaviors and attitudes” of eight-, tenth- and twelfth-graders.

    It found that the most common substances used by teenagers in those grades—alcohol, cannabis and (vaped) nicotine—were all being used less. This follows a few years of notable increases before rates flattened in 2020.

    “We have never seen such dramatic decreases in drug use among teens in just a one-year period,” NIDA Director Nora Volkow said in a press statement. “These data are unprecedented and highlight one unexpected potential consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused seismic shifts in our day-to-day lives.”

    The findings won’t help those who claim that fast-spreading state-level marijuana legalization encourages youth use.

    For alcohol, 17.2 percent of eighth-graders reported using it in the past year, a drop from 20.5 percent in 2020; 28.5 percent of tenth-graders stated they had done so, a substantial dive from 40.7 percent in 2020; and 46.5 percent of twelfth-graders said the same thing, another significant decline from 55.3 percent in 2020.

    With marijuana, 7.1 percent of eighth-graders reported using it in the past year, as well as 17.3 percent of tenth-graders and 30.5 percent of twelfth-graders. That’s compared to 11.4 percent, 28 percent and 35. 2 percent in 2020, respectively. The findings won’t help those who claim that fast-spreading state-level marijuana legalization encourages youth use.

    Rates of past-year use of illicit drugs other than marijuana also sank—from 7.7 percent among eighth-graders in 2020 to 4.6 percent in 2021; from 8.6 percent of tenth-graders to 5.1 percent; and from 11.4 percent of twelfth-graders to 7.2 percent.

    Meanwhile vaping nicotine—what the researchers noted as “the predominant method of nicotine consumption among young people” and perhaps the most politically charged drug of them all—fell too: 12.1 percent of eighth-graders reported past-year vaping, 19.5 percent of tenth-graders, and 26.6 percent of twelfth graders. That compares with 16.6 percent of eighth-graders, 30.7 percent of tenth-graders, and 34.5 percent of twelfth-graders in 2020. (Rates of cigarette smoking, significantly lower than those for vaping, had in some cases shown a rare uptick in 2020, but declined steeply in 2021.)

    It’s getting ever harder for opponents of tobacco harm reduction to claim a teen vaping “epidemic.”

    Those vaping numbers are consistent with data released earlier this year from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which indicated that current use (defined as using at least once in the past 30 days) decreased from 19.6 percent to 11.3 percent among high-schoolers, and from 4.7 percent to 2.8 percent among middle-schoolers. It’s getting ever harder for opponents of tobacco harm reduction to claim a teen vaping “epidemic.”

    Like the CDC and FDA vaping data, though, the Monitoring the Future survey arrives with caveats due to COVID and remote learning. Its authors note, for example, that “students who took the survey at home may not have had the same privacy or may not have felt as comfortable truthfully reporting substance use as they would at school, when they are away from their parents.”

    The Monitoring the Future researchers could not identify specific reasons for the marked decreases, even if the impacts of the pandemic have clearly been profound. But unlike the CDC and FDA, they did not outright say the statistics from this year could not be compared to years past. The sample size in 2021 was around 25 percent smaller than in previous surveys. But the researchers conducted additional statistical analysis aimed at confirming “that the location differences for the survey, whether taken in-person in a classroom or at home, had little to no influence on the results.”

    “Moving forward,” Volkow said, “it will be crucial to identify the pivotal elements of this past year that contributed to decreased drug use—whether related to drug availability, family involvement, differences in peer pressure, or other factors—and harness them to inform future prevention efforts.”



    Photograph by Colleen via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Alex was formerly Filter’s news editor. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at VICE, and has been published in the New York Times Magazine, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Los Angeles Times and the New Republic, among other outlets. He was also previously a freelance editorial consultant for the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World; The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. He is currently based in Los Angeles.

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