Between checking their Facebook pages and texting their friends, many teens are still finding time to experiment with substances. Nationwide, 36.8 percent of high school students have used marijuana at least once, 6.4 percent have used cocaine, 72.5 percent have had at least one drink, and 46.3 percent have tried cigarettes, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey.
Enter the National Institute on Drug Abuse's fourth annual "Drug Facts Chat Day." Yesterday, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., 40 National Institutes of Health scientists gave just-the-facts responses to 1,500 anonymous questions from teenagers at 80 schools. "Kids are really smart," says psychologist Lucinda Miner, who moderated the NIDA day. "Scare tactics and exaggeration don't work." Being candid does. You can honestly tell your kids that drug use is less common than they think. "It's not everybody in your school that's using drugs," says Miner.
Teens can get misinformation on the web. "There's a lot of chatter out there," says Miner. To help boost the odds that they'll get the straight facts, send them to NIDA's "science behind drug abuse" pages, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's "cool spot" pages on alcohol and peer pressure, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's justthinktwice.com. And you can check out the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's family guide.
What's the most dangerous drug? Scientists don't give a single-word answer, such as "heroin." "The risk can be there for any drug. It depends how much you're using," says Miner. Each year drug use kills about 570,000 Americans — 440,000 from disease related to tobacco, 85,000 from alcohol, 20,000 from illegal drugs, and 20,000 from prescription drug abuse. (Steer kids toward NIDA's teen pages on "Rx abuse.") Some 1.7 million Americans a year wind up in the emergency room because of drugs. For more information, see drugabuse.gov.
Are more kids using drugs? It depends on the substance. The good news: Fewer teens are smoking cigarettes and using methamphetamines, hallucinogens, and cigarettes. (Still, one in five teens had lit up at least once during the 30 days before the CDC's most recent Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey of high school students.) The bad news: more teens are abusing prescription and over-the-counter medications, which can be dangerous and addictive. One in 20 high school seniors reported "non-medical" use of the opiate pain reliever OxyContin in the year before the NIDA-funded Monitoring the Future study. And nearly one in 10 of them abused the pain reliever Vicodin (second only to marijuana).
How much is it safe to drink? Kids always want to know, says Miner. For most adults, up to two drinks (a 12-ounce bottle of beer or a five-ounce glass of wine) a day for men and one drink a day for women causes few if any problems, according to the NIAAA. (Alcohol can be particularly harmful for girls.) But remind teens that underage drinking is illegal and that each year 5,000 Americans under 21 die from it. In the 30 days before high school students filled out the CDC's most recent Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey, 24 percent of them had had five or more drinks of alcohol in a row on at least one day and 28.3 of them had ridden at least once in a vehicle driven by someone drunk.
Can I drink if my parents or brother is alcoholic? "They hear it's genetic," says Miner. "We try to explain there is a genetic vulnerability, but that isn't destiny. It isn't a sealed fate." Make wise decisions.
What can you do for a friend who has problems? "Seek out a trusted adult or health professional," says Miner. To find out about treatment and where to find it, phone the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator at 1-800-662-HELP or visit http://www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov. To get immediate help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
What about medical marijuana? "There isn't a lot of data out there," says Miner. "There's a of anecdotal stuff. They should look at this with a critical eye." For more information, see ehealthforum.com's medical marijuana forum and debate pages and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's medical marijuana page.
What about K2 and synthetic forms of marijuana? "We tell them we don't know a lot," says Miner. "We don't know what's actually in it. Is that worth the risk?" Studies are few and far between.
Weigh in: What drug questions have your kids asked you?