The percentage of high school seniors nationwide who are using illicit drugs continues to drop, but students are still smoking cigarettes at rates that virtually have remained the same since 1984, a new National Institute of Drug Abuse survey shows.
For the first time in the 16 years this survey has been conducted, less than half the students polled in the spring of 1990 had tried any illicit drug. That is down from a high of 66 percent eight years earlier.
Researchers from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research quizzed 15,676 seniors in 137 public and private schools for the latest survey.
The survey found that 47.9 percent of the students had used an illicit drug at least once in their lives, reflecting a continuing decline since the early 1980s, when up to 64 percent had tried an illicit drug at least once.
"This is truly a sign of progress toward the goal of becoming a drug-free society," Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, said yesterday in releasing the report.
But Sullivan also expressed concern that the proportion of seniors who smoked at least one cigarette daily has remained around 19 percent over the last seven years and that the percentage of seniors who smoked half a pack a day has remained around 11 percent since 1986.
The study also reported "significant decreases" in the use of cocaine and crack, a cocaine derivative. The percentage of seniors using cocaine within the past year decreased from 6.5 percent in 1989 to 5.3 percent in 1990, the lowest level since the survey was first conducted in 1975.
"Current" cocaine use, defined as at least once in the 30 days before the survey was taken, decreased by about one-third -- from 2.8 percent in 1989 to 1.9 percent in 1990. A decline of about two-thirds, from 0.3 percent to 0.1 percent, was seen in the daily use of cocaine.
In 1990, 0.7 percent of seniors had used crack within the past month, which is half the 1989 rate of 1.4 percent. Annual use of crack also decreased substantially, from 3.1 percent in 1989 to 1.9 percent in 1990.
The survey, which also measured seniors' attitudes and beliefs about drug abuse, found significant increases in the percentage who said they see "great risk" in trying crack. Since 1987, the first year data on crack were collected, the proportion seeing great harm in using crack regularly has increased from 84.6 percent to 91.6 percent, according to the report.
"Young peoples' earlier attitudes that held that cocaine is a harmless, socially acceptable drug have changed," Sullivan said. Their good sense has turned them toward more healthy lifestyles."