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Teen Health

Nearly Half of U.S. Teens Smoke, Drink Alcohol, or Use Drugs

New Report Calls Teen Substance Abuse America’s No. 1 Public Health Problem
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No. 1 Public Health Problem

“Health care providers need to integrate screening for substance abuse into their practice, and treat and refer patients,” Foster says. This may be easier said than done because there is a dearth of addiction treatment information and options available as well as insurance barriers, she says.

Parents need to know what their teens are up to and who they spend time with, she says.

Modeling good behavior is also important, Foster says. “Make sure they know that it doesn’t take a drink or drug to relax,” she says. And “if you do suspect there is a problem, get help fast because it won’t go away, and will probably exacerbate fast.”

Substance Abuse Not a Rite of Passage

Teen substance abuse is a huge problem,” says Stephen Grcevich, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Family Center by the fall in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. “The numbers in the new report are very consistent with what we see in context of our practice and surrounding areas.”

But teen substance abuse and addiction are not inevitable, he says. Preventing substance abuse starts with “intentional parenting” at an early age.

“You have to have a plan that allows you to be a positive influence on your children at a young age so that when they get to an age where they are exposed to drugs and alcohol, they will know how to say no,” he says.

“Kids who do well academically, are involved in religion, and/or are actively engaged in sports are less likely to get involved with these substances,” he says. “We need to look at giving kids something meaningful and important to do.”

The new findings mirror what Harold C. Urschel, MD, an addiction expert in Dallas, sees in practice “without question.”

He says that “we know that if you wait to drink alcohol until you are 21, you are 40% less likely to become addicted than if you drink alcohol at age 15,” he says.

From the age of 15 to 22, the adolescent brain is developing, Urschel says. “A complex layer of neural networks is being laid down and brain growth is exponential during these years, so even a little bit of injury from alcohol or drugs is greatly magnified,” he says.

Drinking alcohol or using drugs is not harmless fun or a rite of passage, he says.

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