Teenage girls experiment with drugs at a higher rate than boys

A national survey shows girls ahead of boys in first-time drug use.

Published February 10, 2006 1:00PM (EST)

Results of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy's National Survey on Drug Use and Health were released Thursday, and the big news was that teenage girls are trying cigarettes, alcohol and drugs at higher rates than boys for the first time in the survey's history, the Associated Press reported.

In 2004, when the most recent survey was conducted, 1.5 million girls ages 12 to 17 started drinking alcohol, compared with 1.28 million boys in the same age group. Seven hundred and thirty thousand girls started smoking cigarettes, versus 565,000 boys; and 675,000 girls and 577,000 boys started smoking pot. And, the AP reported, "14.4 percent of girls and 12.5 percent of boys reported misusing prescription drugs." Which is distressing news, but it's also a little confusing.

Drug czar John Walters also told reporters that overall, teenage drug and alcohol use has declined by 19 percent since 2001. And a quick look at the survey itself indicates that in general, comparable percentages of girls and boys identified themselves as "current users" or "past-month users" of various drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. So the issue isn't that way more girls than boys are using drugs overall. It's that more girls are trying drugs and alcohol for the first time.

The survey says, "In 2004, an estimated 2.8 million persons used an illicit drug for the first time within the past 12 months ... Most initiates (58.1 percent) were younger than age 18 when they first used, and the majority of new users (57.9 percent) were female." And since policymakers and researchers regard rates of first-time use as "leading indicators of emerging patterns of substance use," the finding may portend a dangerous trend among young women.

So what's next? Walters acknowledged that "we have to deal with today's substance abuse reality, and today's reality is, girls have been using at higher rates than boys in critical areas." Here's hoping his office can be creative -- and realistic -- in its approach to the problem.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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