WASHINGTON -- Drug use among young Americans continued a decade-long decline in 1990, and for the first time in 16 years fewer than half of all high school seniors said they have tried an illicit drug, according to a federal survey released yesterday.
Yet a disturbing proportion of students continue to drink and smoke, according to the confidential survey of 15,676 seniors in 137 public and private high schools throughout the country.
Although high school seniors continue to report that cocaine, crack cocaine and marijuana are readily available, the demand for the drugs has declined and more students regard drug use unfavorably.
Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan said the survey shows "substantial progress" in the war on drugs. "We are beginning to loosen the grip that drug dealers and financiers have on our schools and neighborhoods," he said.
The proportion of last year's high school seniors who had ever used an illegal drug dropped to 47.9 percent, down 3 percentage points from the 1989 class and the lowest level since the annual National Institute on Drug Abuse survey began in 1975.
In 1990, one-third of all high school seniors reported using at least one illegal drug in the past year, down from a peak of 54 percent in 1979.
Marijuana use in 1990 was at 27 percent, compared with 29.6 percent the previous year. One in 20 high school seniors reported using cocaine in the past year, representing a decline from 6.5 percent in 1989 to 5.3 percent in 1990.
"There is slow but steady progress in our long-term efforts," said Lloyd D. Johnston, a University of Michigan researcher who led the survey project. "But we must not lose sight of the fact that even today a significant fraction of our young people are involved with these drugs and that there still remains much to be done," Mr. Johnston said.
Officials cautioned that the survey reflects attitudes on drug use only among a "mainstream sample" of high school students who are graduating and does not include the 20 percent of 17- and 18-year-olds who are high school dropouts and much more likely to use drugs.
But Mr. Johnston said the use of drugs among students who are frequently truant also has shown a steady decline in recent years, indicating that the same may be true of dropouts.