More U.S. Teens Are Shunning Risky Behaviors

But too many, especially Hispanics, report drug use and suicidal feelings, study finds

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By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, June 8, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Risky health behaviors -- such as unsafe motor vehicle use, sexual activity, and tobacco and alcohol use -- are on the decline among American youth.

But the downward trend isn't steep enough, a new U.S. government report finds, and disparities between racial and ethnic groups are still discouragingly high.

"We're delighted that we're seeing some progress, but the reality is that risk-behavior levels are just way too high," said Howell Wechsler, director of the division of adolescent and school health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We want to celebrate that most of the risk behaviors are going in right direction, but they're not going down fast enough so we have a lot more work to do."

Wechsler spoke at a news conference Thursday to announce the findings of the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance - United States, 2005, released by the CDC.

The survey has been conducted every two years since 1991. This year's survey is based on data collected in the spring of 2005 from almost 14,000 students in public and private high schools around the country. In addition to national data, the report also includes data from surveys conducted in 40 states and 21 large urban school districts.

Overall, the proportion of high school students engaging in critical health risk behaviors has declined, Wechsler said. This includes behavior related to motor vehicle safety, sexual activity, tobacco and alcohol use, and violence.

Seatbelt use, in particular, has increased dramatically. In 2005, just 10 percent of teens said they rarely or never use a seatbelt, down from 18 percent in 2003 and 26 percent in 1991.

Also, fewer students are reporting alcohol use: 43 percent in 2005, compared with 51 percent in 1991.

There has also been a drop in the percentage of students reporting ever having sexual intercourse (47 percent in 2005, down from 54 percent in 1991). Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of sexually active students reported using a condom during the last sexual intercourse, up considerably from 46 percent in 1991.

Many racial and ethnic differences complicated the picture, though the differences were not dramatically different from those seen in previous years, Wechsler stated.

White students were less likely than Hispanic or black students to engage in physical fighting, risky sexual behaviors and be overweight. They were more likely, however, to smoke cigarettes and engage in binge drinking.

Black students were least likely to use tobacco, alcohol, cocaine and other drugs, compared to white and Hispanic peers. On the other hand, they were the most likely to report risky sexual behaviors and "couch potato" behaviors, such as watching TV three or more hours a day.

"The data dispels myths that African-American youth have negative behaviors in all areas," said Dr. Renee Jenkins, professor and chairwoman of the department of pediatrics and child health at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. "There were also some surprises in the nutrition area, where African-Americans reported the highest percentage of eating fruits and vegetables more than five times a day."

Issues of sedentary behavior, which contribute greatly to overweight and obesity, might best be addressed with a community approach, Jenkins added. "We need to recognize the context of communities," she said. "Higher rates of TV watching and using computers have to be seen in the context of less-than-safe communities. Choices about how they spend time are determined to some extent by the communities in which they live.

The portrait of Hispanic youth was perhaps the most troubling, with higher reported suicide attempts and higher reported use of drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines. Latin girls, in particular, reported a persistently high rate of feeling sad and hopeless and of attempting suicide.

"I'm not comfortable painting this as a positive picture," said Dr. Glenn Flores, professor of pediatrics, epidemiology and health policy at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. "It disturbs me as a Latino and as a Latino pediatrician to see the extent of drug use in the Latino community, the lack of use of condoms and the unacceptably high rate of sadness and hopelessness and suicide-related issues."

"I think this is a sentinel indicator for us to say there's something wrong with the childhood we're giving to our Latino kids," Flores added. "We could have a very troubled future generation, and since the majority of our nation's children will soon be Latino, we're talking about our whole nation's future productivity and health."

More information

To see the entire survey, visit the CDC.

SOURCES: June 8, 2006, news conference with Howell Wechsler, Ed.D., MPH, director, Division of Adolescent and School Health, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Renee Jenkins, M.D., professor and chairwoman, Department of Pediatrics and Child Health, Howard University, Washington, D.C.; Glenn Flores, M.D., professor of pediatrics, epidemiology and health policy, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance - United States, 2005, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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