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Teens Engaging Less in Risky Behavior

CDC survey finds more buckle up, avoid drugs and tobacco

THURSDAY, June 27, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Now that Ozzy Ozbourne's domestic life has more appeal than his music, could sex and drugs -- if not rock and roll -- be losing favor with American adolescents?

Maybe so, according to a new government survey showing that being a teen isn't quite such risky business as it used to be.

More teens are delaying sex, avoiding drugs and tobacco and wearing seat belts when they take to the roads than they did five years ago, says a new survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fewer high school students are carrying weapons, riding with intoxicated drivers, and contemplating or attempting suicide, according to the 34-state, 18-city Youth Risk Behaviors Surveillance Survey.

"The youth in our high schools are increasingly acting like responsible young men and women -- making responsible choices that will protect themselves now and well into the future," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said in a statement.

But both Thompson and Laura Kann, a CDC behavioral scientist and a co-author of the study, said not every grade on the latest report card would earn a spot on the fridge.

"While we've seen some important improvements over the last 10 years, there are still too many kids [doing things] that will cause them health, education, and social problems," Kann said.

For example, the number of teens who consume alcohol remained steady between 1991 and 2001, health officials said: Nearly half had at least one drink in the 30 days before the survey. And three in 10 said they'd had five or more drinks at a sitting -- considered a binge -- in that time.

Cocaine use, both current and past, jumped from 6 percent to 9 percent during the period, and regular use of the drug doubled from 2 percent to 4 percent.

The survey, which showed wide variation from state to state, also looked at eating and exercise habits, and found some alarming numbers.

Nearly one in nine high school students was overweight in 2001, and another 14 percent were at risk of becoming so. Only 21 percent, or about one in five, said they got the recommended five servings a day or fruits and vegetables.

Fewer teens are exercising regularly at school now than in 1991, too. Although overall participation in physical education classes stayed steady, participation in daily PE fell. More than one in three students (35 percent) said they didn't get 20 minutes a day or more of vigorous exercise at least three times a week.

But officials said they were encouraged by other trends that could improve adolescent health and reduce their risk of injuries and death.

The share of teens who said they never or rarely buckled up fell from 26 percent in 1991 to 14 percent in 2001. Last year, 31 percent of youth said they'd ridden in a car with someone who'd been drinking alcohol, down from 40 percent in 1991.

Smoking rates spiked during the early 1990s, but are on their way back down. The reason, Kann said, is higher tobacco taxes and aggressive education and antismoking campaigns. In 1991, 28 percent of teens said they smoked, a figure that rose to 36 percent in 1997 before falling to 29 percent in 2002.

Marijuana use, both current or lifetime, has followed a similar pattern. It rose in the middle of the decade and headed lower in recent years. In 2002, 42 percent of youth said they'd smoked pot at least once, compared with 47 percent in 1997 and 31 percent in 1991.

Teens appear to be keeping a lid on their libido, too.

The share of students who'd had sex dropped from 54 percent in 1991 to 46 percent in 2002. The proportion who'd had four or more sex partners -- a risk factor for infections like HIV and gonorrhea -- also fell, to 14 percent from 19 percent at the beginning of the 1990s.

Meanwhile, condom use is up, from 46 percent to 58 percent of youths at the last time they had sex, although that figure has remained level since 1999.

Ralph Hingson, a Boston University teen health expert, said some of the last decade's most significant decreases in risky behavior are the result of policies targeting young drivers. Every state but one, for example, now has a seat belt laws for motorists, and 18 states have enacted rules that let police officers stop drivers for not wearing the restraints.

Making these "primary enforcement" laws a nationwide policy would probably prevent 600 alcohol-related traffic deaths each year and another 1,000 fatal accidents that don't involve drinking, Hingson said. The effect would be particular strong on young drivers, he added.

Similarly, in 1991 only four states had laws making it illegal for a minor to drive with a positive blood alcohol content. Now, every state has such a provision, which helps reduce drunken driving by teens.

What To Do

For more on the youth behavior survey, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For more on the hazards of teen drinking and drug use, visit the National Institutes of Health or the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

SOURCES: Laura Kann, Ph.D., behavioral scientist, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Ralph Hingson, Sc.D., M.P.H., associate dean for research, Boston University School of Public Health; statement, Tommy G. Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, June 27, 2002
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