Most Used Drugs by Teens

Alcohol, marijuana and vaping products are popular among young people. The most common drugs used by teens include both legal and illegal substances that can have profound effects on their health.
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The teenage years involve exploration and self-discovery. During this journey, young people may experiment with drugs or alcohol. They might drink at a high school party, discreetly smoke marijuana in an isolated location or use prescription stimulants to help study for a test.

The Monitoring the Future study explores teenage substance abuse trends. Compiled by researchers at the University of Michigan, the survey examines teen behaviors and perceptions associated with various drugs, including alcohol, marijuana and vaping products.

In 2017, the survey found that the five most commonly used drugs among U.S. teens, in rank order, were alcohol, marijuana, vaping products such as e-cigarettes, cigarettes and flavored little cigars. Researchers also confirmed that adolescent use of heroin and prescription opioids, two major drivers of the opioid epidemic, was not common.

1. Alcohol

Since the 1980s, drinking rates among adolescents have mostly declined. However, the lifetime, annual, 30-day and daily alcohol prevalence showed little or no change for eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students in 2017. This may indicate the end of the long-term decline in teen drinking, according to researchers from the University of Michigan.

Alcohol is still the most used drug in America among teens. In 2017, more than 33 percent of 12th-graders, 19.7 percent of 10th-graders and 8 percent of eighth-graders had used alcohol in the previous month. Overall, about 20 percent of these teens had used alcohol in the previous 30 days.

In 2017, more than 33 percent of 12th-graders had used alcohol in the previous month.

Flavored alcoholic drinks, such as Smirnoff malt beverages, have been particularly popular among adolescents in recent years. In 2017, about one in five high school seniors had tried a flavored alcoholic beverage in the previous month.

Binge drinking — consuming an excessive amount of alcohol in a short period of time — is also common among teens today. About 4 percent of eighth-graders, 10 percent of 10th-graders and 17 percent of 12th-graders engaged in binge drinking in 2017.

Alcohol use has devastating consequences on youth. It can lead to poor decision-making, risky behavior and learning problems. Teen drinking can also increase their risk for alcohol addiction.

Teen drinking may result in legal trouble because underage drinking and drunk driving are illegal. On average, alcohol contributes to the deaths of 4,358 people under age 21 each year. Many of these alcohol-related deaths involve car crashes.

2. Marijuana

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug among U.S. teens and adults, and it’s the second-most popular drug in general for teens. Today, fewer teens perceive cannabis as harmful. Some teens believe the drug cannot be harmful because it is a natural plant. The results of the latest Monitoring the Future survey reflect this belief.

In 2017, teen marijuana use increased for the first time in seven years. Researchers found that 22.9 percent of 12th-graders, 15.7 percent of 10th-graders and 5.5 percent of eighth-graders had used marijuana in the previous month. In total, 14.5 percent of these teens had used the drug.

However, marijuana remains a Schedule I substance that is illegal in the U.S. Cannabis use can result in increased heart rate, respiratory problems and mental illness.

When teens use marijuana, the drug’s primary ingredient, THC, passes through the body and enters the brain, affecting concentration, decision-making and memory. This can lead to poor judgement, decreased coordination and trouble learning.

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3. Vaping Products

Vaping involves inhaling aerosol produced by an e-cigarette, hookah product or similar device. While often marketed as a harmless activity, a 2017 report by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that e-cigarette use can result in respiratory problems.

Vaping has become more than just an alternative to smoking cigarettes. Overall, teen vaping increased from 2016 to 2017.

In 2017, University of Michigan researchers found that:

  • One in 10 high school seniors had engaged in vaping marijuana in the previous year, and nearly 5 percent of 12th-grade students had vaped marijuana in the previous 30 days.
  • 11 percent of 12th-graders, 8.2 percent of 10th-graders and 3.5 percent of eighth-graders had vaped nicotine in the previous month.
  • In the previous month, about 10 percent of high school seniors had vaped a flavoring product.
  • Overall, 12 percent of all surveyed students had engaged in vaping in the previous 30 days.

A recent survey supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration showed that e-cigarette use among high school students increased from 1.5 percent in 2011 to 16 percent in 2015. About 3 million middle school and high school students used e-cigarettes in 2015.

4. Cigarettes

Cigarette use among adolescents has gradually declined in popularity, according to the Monitoring the Future survey. Since teen cigarette use peaked in the mid-1990s, lifetime prevalence has decreased by 71 percent, 30-day prevalence by 81 percent and daily prevalence by 86 percent.

Today, fewer teens are using cigarettes than ever before. Less than 1 percent of eighth- and 10th-grade students smoked a half pack of cigarettes per day in 2017. That year, 5.4 percent of students among all three grades included in the study reported having used cigarettes in the previous 30 days.

A 2014 report by the U.S. surgeon general found that cigarettes are more toxic now than in the 1950s, and smokers today have a greater risk for developing lung cancer than did smokers in 1964. In addition to cancer, cigarette use can lead to lung problems, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD.

5. Flavored Little Cigars

Flavored little cigars are small cigars about the size of a cigarette that come in various flavors, including chocolate, vanilla and watermelon. In recent years, these smoking products have become popular among teens.

In 2014, the Monitoring the Future survey began measuring teen use of regular and flavored little cigars. That year, 7.4 percent of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students had used flavored little cigars in the previous month. Since then, use of these products by teens has slowly declined. But they were still the fifth-most commonly used substance among adolescents in 2017.

Smoking little cigars is not safe. Smoking cigars regularly can lead to gum disease and tooth loss. It can also increase a person’s risk for various cancers. Heavy cigar smoking can cause emphysema and coronary heart disease.

Why Do Teens Try Drugs?

Teens turn to popular drugs for a variety of reasons. They may be influenced by media messages, be pressured by friends or have a genuine desire to try a substance. But the health effects of drugs, alcohol and tobacco products are real.

Despite the prevalence of teen drug use in high school, most teens do not use drugs. If your child is experimenting with drugs or alcohol, have a discussion about the dangers of substance abuse. But if your child is struggling with substance abuse, seek treatment for teens.

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