For the third straight year, illegal drug use by teenagers declined slightly in 2004 -- with the notable exceptions of inhalants, alcohol and the painkiller OxyContin, government investigators said yesterday.
Since 2001, the number of high school students who reported using an illicit drug in the past month fell 17 percent to 16.1 percent this year. Teenagers saying they had used alcohol within the past 30 days declined 7.7 percent to 33 percent, according to the comprehensive "Monitoring the Future" survey. Bush administration officials hailed the data as evidence that its massive anti-drug campaign has sunk in, especially with preteens.
"Addiction starts early in life," said Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health. "If this is a harbinger of the future, we are really very encouraged."
But he and others said enormous challenges remain as young people experiment with alcohol, newer prescription medicines and harmful fumes from household substances such as glue and cleaning products. "We still have a long way to go," he said.
Overall, high school seniors reported using a broader array of illegal substances with more frequency. Fully 70 percent of 12th-graders said they have consumed alcoholic beverages during the past year, and 52 percent reported having been drunk at least once in 2004.
"It is stunning the country has not caught on to this. It is so frustrating," said Wendy Hamilton, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She blamed societal attitudes and politics for the slow progress on teenage drinking.
"We still say underage drinking is a rite of passage," she said, noting that young people receive mixed messages when they see adults drinking regularly and heavily. In the metropolitan D.C. area since September, 17 teenagers have died in car crashes, many involving alcohol, Hamilton said.
By her estimate, the federal government spent $1.8 billion on drug prevention, with $71 million of that directly targeted at alcohol.
"The alcohol industry lobbied so heavily when we were trying to get the media campaign to include alcohol," she complained. Since the 2000 election cycle, the beer, wine and liquor industries have contributed more than $35 million to federal candidates, about 60 percent of it to Republicans, according to analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, speculated that teenagers do not see the same risks in alcohol consumption as in drug abuse.
When it comes to substances such as cocaine, heroin and even tobacco, there is overwhelming evidence linking usage to specific injuries or illnesses, she said. But alcohol is a legal product that does not necessarily cause health effects. "We are in a much stronger position to make an argument against drugs," she said.
For 30 years, the federal government and the University of Michigan have tracked drug use by teenagers. The latest survey questioned nearly 50,000 eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders in 400 schools nationwide. Because the results do not include teenagers who have dropped out, some analysts say the numbers may be slightly lower than the reality.
Over the three decades, the trend line has resembled a roller coaster, with drug use spiking in the late 1970s and early 1980s, falling to a low of 10.5 percent in 1992 and rising again to a high of 20.6 percent in 1996. The annual survey collects data on a wide variety of illicit substances including cocaine, marijuana, amphetamines, heroin, alcohol and tobacco.
The greatest successes have come with younger teenagers. Cigarette smoking among eighth-graders, for instance, has been cut almost in half over the past decade, and alcohol use has steadily declined. But there was a noticeable increase in inhalant use by younger teenagers, perhaps because "these products are inexpensive, legal and easy to obtain," according to the survey. These include glues, paint thinner, nail polish remover, gasoline and shoe polish.
"Even a single session of repeated inhalant abuse can disrupt heart rhythms and cause death from cardiac arrest," Volkow said.
Similarly, the percentage of teenagers abusing OxyContin remains relatively small -- about 5 percent -- but the number has inched upward, and "considering the addictive potential of this drug . . . we think that these are disturbingly high rates," said University of Michigan researcher Lloyd Johnston.
In the face of budget cuts by Congress, John Walters, director of National Drug Control Policy, warned that usage will almost certainly spike again if parents, teachers and political leaders become complacent. "The challenge before us is to follow through," he said.