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Survey Finds White Students More Likely to Drink, Smoke, and Take Drugs

Education policymakers are increasingly focused on narrowing achievement gaps between white and black or Hispanic students. Across a wide range of measures, including state assessments, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and high school graduation and post-secondary attainment rates, black and Hispanic students are not doing as well as their white peers. But a long-running federal study identifies one area where Hispanic and particularly black students are doing better than white students: refraining from the use of alcohol, cigarettes, and illicit drugs.

Begun in 1975, conducted by researchers at the University ofMichigan, and funded and published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, the Monitoring the Future Study surveys students in eighth, 10th, and 12th grades.[1]

According to the survey, black teenagers are less likely than their white or Hispanic peers to drink, smoke, and take illicit drugs. While the majority of all white 12th graders reported drinking an alcoholic beverage in the last 30 days, fewer than one-third of black 12th graders said the same. Black students are also less likely to use most types of illegal drugs, including cocaine, inhalants, hallucinogens, methamphetamine and ecstasy. And they are less likely than white or Hispanic students to have driven after drinking or to have ridden in a car with a driver who had been drinking.[2]

White students are also more likely than their black and Hispanic peers to use alcohol, cigarettes, and illicit drugs heavily. White students are more likely to be frequent smokers and to have had five or more drinks in a row within the past month.

There are also gaps in rates of substance abuse between boys and girls. Boys are slightly more likely than girls to drink or use illicit drugs, but boys and girls are about equally likely to use cigarettes. Boys are much more likely than girls to use “heavier” drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, and to be heavy users of alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs. Thirty-four percent of twelfth grade boys reported having had more than five drinks in a row during the previous two weeks, compared to only 24 percent of girls the same age. Males' larger average size and more rapid metabolism of alcohol may contribute to this difference.

Recently, however, younger groups of girls—eighth grade and, for some substances, 10th grade girls—have begun using substances more heavily and at a higher rate than boys of the same age. This appears to be due more to a decline in boys' use of substances than an increase in girls' use. In 2004, 19 percent of eighth grade girls had drunk alcohol in the past month, compared to 18 percent of boys. Rates of alcohol use for both boys and girls had declined since 1991, however, when 26 percent of eighth grade boys and 24 percent of eighth grade girls reported drinking in the past month. Eighth grade girls were also more likely than boys to drink heavily: in 2004, 12 percent of eighth grade girls and 11 percent of eighth grade boys reported having had more than five drinks in a row in the past two weeks. This was roughly the same percent of girls as reported drinking heavily in 1991, but a decline from the 14 percent of boys who reported drinking heavily in 1991.

Across all racial/ethnic groups and for both genders rates of abuse of most substances are falling. In particular, cigarette and alcohol use are much lower amongst middle- and high-school students than they were in the mid-1970s.

[1] Loyd D. Johnston, Patrick M. O'Malley, Jerald G. Bachman, and John E. Schulenberg, Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975-2004. Volume I: Secondary school students (NIH Publication No. 05-5727) (Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2005).

[2] Department of Health and Human Services, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System: 2005.http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/yrbs/

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