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Baby Boomers "Resigned" to Teen Drug Use, According to a National Survey


October 1996

Many parents expect their teenage children to experiment with illegal drugs, says a national survey released on September 9 (Tim Friend, "Many parents resigned to kids' drug use," USA Today, September 10, 1996, p. A1; Jack Nelson, "Teenagers, Parents Tolerate Illicit Drug Use, Poll Finds," Los Angeles Times/Washington Edition, September, 10, 1996, p. A1; Roberto Suro, "Boomers Expect Teen Drug Use, Survey Finds," Washington Post, September 10, 1996, p. A3; Hearst Newspapers, "Parents 'resigned' to teens' drug use," Des Moines Register, September 10, 1996, p. 1A).

Parents and children said that drugs are the most important problem facing teens today, according to the National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse. However, the number of teenagers who expect to use illicit drugs in the future has doubled from 11% in 1995 to 22% this year. Forty-six percent of the parents surveyed said they expect their teen to try illegal drugs.

Forty-nine percent of the parents surveyed tried marijuana and 21% reported using marijuana regularly in their youth. Forty-six percent of the parents reported knowing someone who uses drugs currently, including 32% who have friends that use marijuana, and 19% have witnessed drugs sold in their communities. Of the "boomer" parents (ages 30 to 50) "who regularly used marijuana in their youth," 65% said they believe their teens will try drugs and only 58% believe that their child's drug use would be a crisis. The report concluded that parents who used marijuana and whose teenagers are aware of their history of drug use are at a much higher risk of using drugs.

The term drug-free school is "an oxymoron," according to Joseph A. Califano Jr., president and chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, which commissioned the survey. "That the baby boomers appear to be so ambivalent and so resigned to drug use by kids is very disturbing," said Califano, who was secretary of health, education and welfare in the Carter administration.

Conducted in July and August of this year, the survey was conducted by Luntz Research Companies, headed by Republican political consultant Frank Luntz. It questioned 1,200 youths (ages 12 to 17) and 1,166 boomer parents with children in the same age group, including 819 parents whose teens were also polled.

As teens grow older, the proximity to drugs and the pressure to try them increase, and teens begin to regard drugs as "no big deal," according to the study. Among 17-year olds, 68% said they could buy marijuana within a few hours, 62% have friends who smoke marijuana, and 58% said they know someone who uses cocaine, LSD or heroin. While 74% of 12-year-olds said they would report a student selling drugs, only 34% of the 17-year-olds said they would.

In assessing the responsibility for teen drug use, relatively few parents held themselves accountable. Forty percent said they felt they had little influence over whether their teenager used illegal drugs, drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes. Two-thirds of the parents surveyed blamed factors outside the family, including teenage friends, culture or society.

According to CASA, the path to addiction typically begins with cigarettes and alcohol. "This 'gateway' principle makes clear that the best way to end new addictions among the young is by drawing a line on the abstinence side of marijuana use, underage smoking and drinking," the report said. "The more parents take responsibility, the less risk of using drugs their children are," said Califano. He added, "From everything we know, an individual who makes it to 21 without using illegal drugs, smoking or abusing alcohol is virtually certain never to do so."

The survey comes in the wake of the National Household Survey released in August that reported a doubling of teen drug use in the last four years and has been used as political ammunition during the presidential campaigns. For more information, see NewsBriefs article, September 1996.

The CASA survey prompted further political rhetoric. Bob Dole's campaign said it illustrates "the terrible casualty count from Bill Clinton's failure to wage a real war on drugs." Clinton's campaign responded that the GOP-controlled Congress has failed to provide the funding the administration has sought for the Safe and Drug Free Schools program, drug interdiction, law enforcement, and treatment programs.