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1997 Household Survey Shows Increase in
Youth Tobacco and Marijuana Use


September-October 1998

On August 21, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the 1997 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), which showed increases in drug use -- particularly marijuana, tobacco, and heroin -- among adolescents age 12-17. In 1997, 11.4% of youths age 12-17 reported using illicit drugs in the past month, an increase from 9% in 1996 (U.S. Department of health and Human Services, "Annual National Drug Survey Results Released," Press Release, August 21, 1998; Associated Press, "Teen-age Drug Use on the Rise, New Government Survey Reports," New York Times, August 22, 1998, p. A11; Associated Press, "Rise in Marijuana Smoking Boosts Drug Use by Teens," Los Angeles Times, August 22, 1998, p. A12; Eun-Kyung Kim, "Rise in drug use led by marijuana," Denver Post, August 22, 1998, p. 4A; Nicole Tsong, "Increase is reported in use of marijuana by teen-agers," San Antonio Express-News, August 22, 1998, p. 4A; Lee Bowman, "Survey finds 10% of teens smoking pot," Rocky Mountain News (Denver), August 22, 1998, p. 43A).

The annual survey showed that the percentage of young people ages 12-17 who used marijuana within the month prior to the survey interview increased from 7.1% in 1996 to 9.4% in 1997. Past month marijuana use by youths peaked at 14.2% in 1979. HHS Secretary Donna Shalala tied the increase, in part, to the decrease in the percentage of youths who reported great risk from smoking marijuana once or twice a week from 57% in 1996 to 54% in 1997. The decrease in perceived risk began in 1990, two years before marijuana use by adolescents began to increase in 1992.

Marijuana use by those age 35+ has not changed significantly since 1988. A greater percentage of whites aged 12-17 and 26-34 use marijuana monthly compared to blacks of those age groups, but a higher proportion of blacks compared to whites in the age groups 18-25 and 35+ used marijuana monthly.

In November 1996 California and Arizona passed "medical marijuana initiatives." General Barry McCaffrey, director of ONDCP, predicted that this would lead to an epidemic of juvenile marijuana use. Attempting to confirm McCaffrey's prediction, the NHSDA collected in-depth data on California and Arizona teen marijuana use. However, the NHSDA shows that California teenage marijuana use in 1997 is substantially below the national average (as well as lower rates of use of LSD, alcohol, and cigarettes). Teenagers in California do not substantially perceive marijuana as less harmful than their peers throughout the nation. Interestingly they report that marijuana is less easy to obtain than their peers in the rest of the nation.

In Arizona, where the legislature prevented the initiative that allowed for the medical use of Schedule I drugs to take effect, teen marijuana use was the highest in the U.S. (Table 56) (Jeff Barker, "State Teen Drug Use Highest in U.S.," Arizona Republic, August 22, 1998).

19.9% (about 4.5 million) youths aged 12-17 used cigarettes in the past month in 1997, compared to 18.3% in 1996. For youths age 12-13, the percentage of past month cigarette use increased from 7.3% in 1996 to 9.7% in 1997. Youth who currently smoke cigarettes were about twelve times as likely to use illicit drugs and 23 times as likely to consume alcohol heavily as nonsmoking youths.

Among those Americans ages 12 and higher surveyed, use of cigarettes in the last year was 70.7 million and use in the last month was 64.0 million -- the highest correlation between yearly and monthly use among the drugs surveyed. Declines in past month use of cigarettes have been steady among adults over 26. Whites smoke somewhat more than blacks.

The rate of first-time heroin use among youths age 12-17 increased from below 0.4 per one-thousand potential new users in 1991 to 3.9 per one-thousand potential new users in 1996.

Apropos of claims of success by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), heroin use in the past month has grown steadily and dramatically since 1988.

The number of past year cocaine users (casual users) has declined by more than half from 10.4 million in 1982 (near the peak of the cocaine epidemic) to 4.1 million in 1997. And past month use of cocaine has dropped even more dramatically from its high of 5.7 million in 1985 to 1.5 million in 1997. However, past month use of crack cocaine has not dropped nearly as significantly -- from 673,000 in 1988 (the high point of the crack epidemic) to only 604,000. These numbers represent the hard-core, high consumption users. Those who report using crack in the past year has consistently been twice the number of monthly crack users.

As a percentage, past month use of cocaine by blacks was more frequent than that of whites, but whites are overwhelmingly the majority of cocaine consumers. The number of black cocaine users (1.4% of 24.4 million) is significantly smaller than the total number of white users (0.6% of 161 million). Whites between 17 and 25 use cocaine much more than blacks. Over age 26 the pattern is reversed. Cocaine use is significantly higher among the unemployed than the employed.

The 1997 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse is available on-line at <>.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services - 200 Independence Ave., SW, Washington, DC 20201, Tel: (202) 690-7000, Web: <>

Gen. Barry McCaffrey, Office of National Drug Control Policy - 750 17th St., NW, 8th Floor, Washington, DC 20006, Tel: (202) 395-6618, Web: <>.