It's never good news that kids are using drugs and alcohol, but fewer U.S. teens are starting before their 16th birthday, a new study finds.
Researchers found that between 2004 and 2017, the age at which teens started drinking alcohol and smoking rose from 16 to 17 years. The age for trying heroin went from 17 to 18, and for cocaine it increased from 18 to 19 years. For crack cocaine, opioids and some other drugs, however, no increase in age was seen.
"We think this is great news because delaying initiation of drugs prevents early exposure, which we know is associated with various long-term negative health outcomes," said lead researcher Karl Alcover, a postdoctoral research associate at Washington State University, in Spokane.
"Also, these promising trends may serve as initial evidence that prevention strategies, especially those that focus on adolescents and young adults, are working," he said.
Linda Richter is director of policy research and analysis at the Center on Addiction, in New York City. She said, "These findings are certainly encouraging and also consistent with other recent research that has found reason to be hopeful that trends generally are moving in a more healthy direction for teens when it comes to tobacco, alcohol and other drug use."
The only significant exception to these positive trends has been vaping of nicotine and THC (the chemical in marijuana that provides a high), which has increased dramatically in recent years and continues to be a public health crisis, she said.
Using the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health for 2004 to 2017, Alcover's team collected data on young people aged 12 and older. More than 84,000 reported trying any drug.
The researchers found that the average age when someone started using 12 of 18 drugs rose. These included alcohol, cocaine, ecstasy, hallucinogens, heroin, inhalants, LSD, marijuana, stimulants, cigars, cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.
However, for crack cocaine, methamphetamines, opioids, PCP, sedatives and tranquilizers, no statistically significant changes were found in the age of introduction.
Alcover isn't sure why that was so.
"It seems that the drugs without change in average age of initiation are among the least prevalent drugs in the U.S.," he said.
Year-to-year upswings were mostly consistent, except for sampling alcohol and LSD. The increase in age for first use of these two drugs may have stalled, the researchers said.
The report also found that teens who use inhalants start at an average age of 15 -- the earliest for any of the drugs analyzed. Average age for trying cocaine and crack cocaine was 18.
Parents play a pivotal role in whether kids start using drugs or not, Alcover said.
Other studies suggest that the use of drugs at an early age is associated with poor parental support, lack of parent-child communication and permissiveness by parents, he said.
"Parental involvement helps reduce children's drug involvement. Parents should talk to their children about the risks of being involved in drug use, and parents should begin this type of conversation with their children early," Alcover added.
Richter said it's difficult to know exactly what underlies the declining trends in teen substance use and the rising age of initiation for most forms of substance use.
"However, there is reason to believe that they can be attributed at least in part to more comprehensive and science-based prevention efforts, including more honest and accurate information presented to teens about the real risks of substance use, rather than the use of unfounded scare tactics," she suggested.
Also, community efforts to reduce the access and appeal of addictive substances play a part, Richter said.
"The harder it is for teens to access a substance -- whether because of lower visibility, higher cost, or less of a presence of the drug in the surrounding environment -- the less likely teens are to use that substance," she explained.
Furthermore, the more parents and other adults are involved in teens' lives, the lower the likelihood that teens will start using tobacco, alcohol or other drugs or develop an addiction, Richter said.
One thing is sure, youth substance abuse doesn't happen in isolation, she said.
"Young people who use one type of addictive substance are significantly more likely to use other ones, increasing the harms to their developing brains and their risk of future addiction," Richter said.
The report was published online March 2 in JAMA Pediatrics.
For more on teen drug abuse, head to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.
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