Student Well-Being

Health Update

March 07, 2001 3 min read
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Study Examines U.S., European Teens’ Smoking, Drug Use

American students smoke fewer cigarettes and consume less alcohol than their European peers, but they use marijuana and other illegal drugs more, according to a recent comparison of European and American studies on teenage drug and alcohol use.

For More Information

A detailed summary of the report, “European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Drugs” is available from the World Health Organization’s European Ministerial Conference on Young People and Alcohol. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Thoroddur Bjarnason, an assistant professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Albany and a member of the steering board of the European study, said the American-European comparison is important because it showed global trends that can affect how nations and schools implement drug policies and prevention efforts.

The European study, called “European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Drugs,” surveyed drug use of 10th graders in 30 European countries. It was released last month at a conference of the World Health Organization. Conducted in 1999, it was designed to be similar to “Monitoring the Future,” the widely cited annual study of American 10th graders’ drug use, in order to allow for comparisons between the European countries and the United States.

According to the researchers, 26 percent of U.S. 10th graders had smoked at least one cigarette in the 30 days before the survey, while an average of 37 percent of European 10th graders had had a cigarette over a similar period.

Forty percent of American students had used alcohol sometime in the 30 days prior to when the survey was taken, compared with 61 percent of their European peers.

On the other hand, 41 percent of the U.S. students reported having used marijuana at least once in their lifetimes, while only 17 percent of the European students had used it.

Moreover, according to the comparison, 23 percent of American 10th graders reported they had used some other form of illegal drug in their lifetimes, while only 6 percent of their European peers reported illegal drug use.

Despite those differences, Mr. Bjarnason emphasized that “we cannot think of this as a simple supply problem.”

He pointed out that countries with more liberal drug-use policies, such as the Netherlands, which allows marijuana use under certain circumstances, do not show much higher levels of marijuana use than countries with very strict policies.

For instance, the United States—which has strict laws forbidding the use of marijuana—had the highest marijuana use, at 41 percent, compared with the Netherlands’ 28 percent.

Addressing the differences in rates of smoking, Mr. Bjarnason pointed out that the decline in cigarette smoking in the United States correlates both with anti-smoking efforts here and with a significant rise in smoking in Eastern European countries, where “a new market for cigarettes seems to have opened up.”

According to Mr. Bjarnason, such trans-Atlantic comparisons are significant, especially if one country shows drug or alcohol use leveling off, but other countries show increases in use. A country that held drug use steady is actually making progress against drugs, he observed.

Junk foods sold in schools jeopardize children’s health as well as the federal school lunch program’s viability and effectiveness, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the school lunch program.

For More Information

Major findings from the report “Foods Sold in Competition with USDA School Meal Programs: A Report To Congress,” are available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The report analyzes the effect of so-called “competitive foods,” such as sodas, candy, and salty snacks, which are often available from vending machines located in school cafeterias or hallways.

The report, “Foods Sold in Competition with USDA School Meal Programs: A Report To Congress,” argues that such beverages and snacks have minimal nutritional value and contribute to health risks in children, such as obesity, high cholesterol, and poor bone development.

“National School Lunch Program participation is associated with higher average intakes of many nutrients, both at lunch and over 24 hours,” the report says, but “competitive foods undermine the nutrition integrity of the programs and discourage participation.”

But persuading schools to get rid of junk food entirely could be a difficult task, the report concedes, because, in many places, sales of those items generate money for the schools. “This puts schools in the position of competing with their own school meal programs for revenue,” the report says.

The report concludes with a review of current federal and state laws and regulations governing competitive foods.

—Vanessa Dea

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Health Update


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