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Substance Abuse: The Nation's Number One Health Problem

NCJ Number
Date Published
May 2001
2 pages
This paper reports on a study that examined trends in patterns of adult and youth smoking, drinking, and illicit drug use over the past three decades.
The report contains data from several hundred public and private sources that reported "snapshots" and long-term trends in patterns of adult and youth substance abuse, consequences to society, and approaches for combating the problem. The report discusses the role the media have played in influencing youth substance use and looks at how treatment is seriously underused, even though numerous studies have shown treatment to be effective. Findings show that juveniles are experimenting with drugs, alcohol, and tobacco at young ages. The research suggests that significant changes in drug awareness occur between the ages of 12 and 13. Young adults (ages 18-25) are more likely to engage in the heavy use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco than all other age groups. By the eighth grade, 52 percent of adolescents have consumed alcohol, 41 percent have smoked cigarettes, and 20 percent have used marijuana. By the 12th grade, about 80 percent have used alcohol, 63 percent have smoked cigarettes, and 49 percent have used marijuana. The media play a critical role in shaping perceptions of the risks of substance use. Increases in substance use among youth between the early 1990's and 1996 were linked to a decline in the prevalence of warning and antidrug messages from the media, parents, and schools; the proliferation of pro-use messages from the entertainment industry; and high levels of tobacco and alcohol product advertising and promotion. Research shows that only one-fourth of individuals who abuse alcohol and illicit drugs receive treatment. Recent studies have shown that after 6 months, treatment for alcoholism is successful for 40 to 70 percent of patients; cocaine treatment is successful for 50 to 60 percent; and opiate treatment is successful for 50 to 80 percent, with effectiveness defined as a 50-percent reduction in substance use after 6 months. This research also shows that treatment, even treatment for relapses into substance abuse, is less expensive than incarceration and untreated addiction.

Date Published: May 1, 2001