Health Update

January 15, 1997 6 min read

Increase in Teen Drug Use Reported in 96

Drug use among adolescents continued to climb last year, driven by sharp increases in marijuana and tobacco use among the youngest teenagers, a federally funded survey reports.

Between 1995 and 1996, the overall use of illicit drugs by young people jumped between 2 and 4 percent, according to researchers at the University of Michigan, which conducts the annual “Monitoring the Future” survey for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In interviews with 50,000 8th, 10th, and 12th graders in public and private schools, the researchers found that the share of 8th graders who had tried marijuana at least once in their lifetimes increased from nearly 20 percent in 1995 to 23 percent last year, building on an upward trend that began in 1991. The portion of 10th graders who had tried marijuana also rose from 34 percent in 1995 to 40 percent in 1996.

And while fewer adults are smoking cigarettes these days, adolescent smoking is on the rise: Between 1995 and 1996, the proportion of 8th graders who said they had used tobacco products in the past month rose from 19 percent to 21 percent, while 10th grade smoking rates jumped from 28 percent to 30 percent, according the study. The use of inhalants, nonmedical tranquilizers, and hallucinogens, however, declined for all grades.

Drug researchers say that the overall upward trend may be due in part to pro-drug messages in the popular culture and an atmosphere of permissiveness among some parents who may have experimented with drugs themselves. Some critics have also called the latest findings proof of the Clinton administration’s lackluster response to the problem of illicit-drug use among youths.

But President Clinton recently launched an effort to help parents discuss the dangers of marijuana use with their children and last year initiated an unprecedented campaign to limit young people’s access to tobacco products.

In addition, the Office of National Drug Control Policy warned last month that sanctions could be issued against doctors and federal contractors, including school bus drivers, who prescribe or are prescribed marijuana under new laws in California and Arizona that legalize the drug for medical purposes.

Increase in Asthma Deaths Due to Other Immunizations

In a controversial new study published in the Jan. 3 issue of Science, a team of British researchers has proposed that asthma deaths are increasing in industrialized nations in part because people are getting fewer respiratory ailments in childhood. Asthma is the leading chronic health condition among children in the United States, according to federal surveys.

Many countries, including the United States, have made significant advances in immunization programs for respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis and whooping cough. The British researchers have found that children who suffer from such ailments, however, may experience changes in their immune systems that can, in turn, fortify them against asthma and allergy problems later in life.

The new study, which focused on 867 Japanese 12- and 13-year-olds who had received vaccinations with a bacteria similar to tuberculosis throughout childhood, found that the children who had the strongest reaction to the vaccine were one-third less likely to suffer from asthma or other respiratory infections than those children with weak or no immune response.

“Our study suggests that the decline in tuberculosis, and perhaps other infections, has been important in the rise of allergy,” Dr. Julian Hopkin, a lung specialist at Churchill Hospital in Oxford, England, and the lead author of the study, said in an interview.

But Dr. Thomas Platz Mills, a professor at the University of Virginia and the director of the Allergy and Asthma Disease Center there, said that there may be other reasons--such as genetic differences--that would explain why some children develop an immune response that shields them from asthma.

Other asthma experts have said that the Oxford study downplays the primary causes of the asthma epidemic, such as air pollution.

Black Children in Florida Twice as Likely To Die From Sickle Cell Disease, Study Reports

Young black children in Florida die from sickle cell disease at twice the national rate, while African-American children in Pennsylvania and Maryland report deaths well under that rate, a study published this month in the government journal Public Health Reports says.

The geographic differences in sickle cell death rates among children are attributable in part to the uneven quality of health services for young people from state to state, according to the researchers at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who evaluated the death certificates of all 1- to 4-year-old black children in the United States between 1968 and 1980 and between 1981 and 1992.

The study found that sickle cell mortality rates dropped 35 percent nationwide between the two time periods to 6.8 deaths for every 1,000 black children with the illness in that age group. During the same periods, 1- to 4-year-old black children in Florida died from the disease at a rate of 16 deaths per 1,000 children with the disease.

Other sickle cell researchers have suggested that Florida’s children die from the genetic blood cell disease, which primarily affects African-American children, in part because the state’s large population of Haitian immigrants may have little access to health-care services that could prevent the condition from becoming fatal.

But Dr. Harold Davis, the lead researcher for the study and now an epidemiologist at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said the population increase is insufficient to explain the higher rate.

Administration Launches Teen Pregnancy Prevention Campaign

The Clinton administration this month launched a new campaign to prevent teenage pregnancy that will funnel federal money into abstinence-education programs and community initiatives to prevent out-of-wedlock births.

President Clinton said in his Jan. 4 weekly radio address that he will direct more than $16 million in the current fiscal year’s budget into the Girl Power! campaign, an abstinence-education effort targeted at 9- to 14-year-old girls.

As part of the new federal welfare law, the administration announced plans to earmark $50 million in 1998 for states to devise abstinence-education programs. The president announced the campaign shortly after new federal figures showed that 37 states registered a decline in adolescent birthrates between 1991 and 1994.

Increase in Ritalin Use Not As Great As Previously Reported

Even though doctors are prescribing Ritalin to hyperactive children 2« times more often than they did in 1990, the figure contradicts previous reports that had cited a more dramatic increase in the dispensing of the drug, a study published last month in the journal Pediatrics says.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency last year reported a sixfold increase in the production of methylphenidate, the generic form of Ritalin, in the United States between 1990 and 1995, but the figures did not reflect how many young people were actually using the drug, the new study by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore says.

Use of the drug, which is designed to calm nervousness and help concentration, has risen more gradually since 1971. About 2.8 percent of 5- to 18-year-olds currently use it, the study notes.