After years of remaining steady, the number of Maryland teen-agers entering treatment for alcohol abuse began to rise last year, a source of concern for state health officials.
Officials began to see an increase during the past year, based on data from teens entering alcohol abuse treatment programs, said Rick Sampson, director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration at the state health department.
"By the time all the data is in for fiscal year 1991, we expect to see a 27 percent increase between 1990 and 1991," he said. "Of course, that causes us some concern."
Officials are awaiting data from the last three months of the 1991 fiscal year, which began July 1, 1990, and ended June 30, 1991.
The statistics reflect the number of children under 18 who entered various public and private drug treatment programs during the fiscal year and who cited alcohol as a primary problem, he explained.
During the first nine month of the 1991 fiscal year alone, 2,751 of the 3,241 teens entering drug treatment programs cited alcohol as a major problem -- the equivalent of about 306 admissions a month. During the entire 1990 fiscal year, 2,881 of 3,762 teens cited alcohol, or only about 240 admissions a month.
The increase follows several years in the late 1980s during which the percentage of teens seeking alcohol abuse treatment remained fairly steady, he said.
The alcohol overdose death of 15-year-old Brian Christopher Ball in Salisbury last weekend has focused public attention on the issue of teen-age drinking.
Several factors could have contributed to the statistical increase cited by Sampson.
More teens may be seeking treatment now because of a greater public awareness of alcoholism, he said. Or, the statistics may be reflecting an expansion in drug treatment services for children.
Another possibility is that teens are switching from illicit "street drugs" to alcohol.
While alcohol abuse is on the rise, abuse of some illicit drugs appears to be declining among teens, he said. "Maybe something is going on with drug-shifting. That's purely speculating."
The percentage of teens entering treatment who say marijuana is their primary drug problem has dropped significantly, from 72.3 percent in 1988 to 64.4 percent in 1990, he said.
Several studies on illicit drug use seem to support the Maryland trend.
A report released this year said the use of crack cocaine and other illicit drugs has declined significantly among young Americans, but alcohol and tobacco use has remained high. That study was conducted by University of Michigan social scientists Lloyd D. Johnston, Jerald G. Bachman and Patrick M. O'Malley.
Anecdotal information from drug abuse experts and teen-agers themselves suggests that some illicit drugs may be harder to obtain these days because of successful police efforts to stop the flow of drugs and because of increased public awareness about the dangers of those drugs.
Several teens who live in Salisbury, where Ball died from an alcohol overdose after a drinking party, said it's easy for under-age youths to get alcoholic beverages.
Said Sampson: "There's more peer pressure to drink than to smoke pot."
A federal study released two months ago revealed that more than half the nation's junior and senior high school students drink, and many go on alcohol "binges."