Study Highlights Teen Substance Abuse
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Some middle and high school youth in Alexandria are smoking, drinking and using marijuana at rates that exceed national numbers, drawing a "disturbing picture of youth substance abuse," a recent report found.
The report, by George Mason University researchers, was released last month by Alexandria's Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition. It is based on data from more than 3,000 Alexandria public school students, as well interviews, focus groups and hundreds of online surveys of adolescents, parents, police officers, government officials and other community members.
"What we wanted to do was really get a good handle of what were the rates of use throughout the city with our middle and high school students but also get under the issues to find out what were some of the reasons behind the uses," said Allen Lomax, the coalition's chairman.
The report found that not only are Alexandria's adolescents using what are known as gateway substances at higher rates, they are starting younger than students elsewhere.
In middle school, Hispanic and black youths were found to have higher lifetime rates of alcohol and marijuana use than their national counterparts. While 39 percent of youths nationwide admit to having had alcohol, for Hispanic and black youths in Alexandria, those numbers jumped to 54 percent and 45 percent, respectively. The two groups' use of marijuana, 19 percent for Hispanic students and 16 percent for black students, also exceeded the national 14 percent rate.
Asian Americans joined them in exceeding the 22 percent national rate for cigarette use.
"Research evidence suggests if you start early, you are more likely to move on with more severe problems with substances," said Jerome Short, who wrote the report along with Christianne Espolito-Smythers.
Short said Alexandria's youth are more vulnerable, in part, because of the city's proximity to the District, where these substances are more readily available, and because the high cost of living forces many parents to work long hours.
"We believe there are a number of middle school youth who are relatively unsupervised after school," Short said.
Although minority students showed the most troublesome trends at the lower grades, white students join them at the high school level.
The report says that 25 percent of white students in Alexandria were found to have used marijuana, compared with 20 percent of white students nationally. About 34 percent of Alexandria's white students also reported heavy alcohol use, defined as having five or more drinks in a row, compared with 30 percent of their national counterparts.
"Many youth agreed that in high school 'everyone drinks alcohol' and 'life is boring without weed,' " the report says. "Some stated that it was easier to get marijuana than alcohol."