WASHINGTON -- White students are more likely to use alcohol, cocaine and marijuana than their black counterparts, the government's top health official said yesterday, citing recent studies he contends should shatter racial stereotypes.
"The time has come to put an end to misconceptions about the extent of drug use among black youth," Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan said at a news conference.
"These youngsters are less likely to use alcohol and other drugs than are kids from other ethnic groups," he said, launching a national campaign aimed at reinforcing the positive news about black youths.
The public's misperception, Dr. Sullivan suggested, is based on media images of black youths being arrested for selling drugs or committing violent, drug-related crimes.
In fact, white male high school seniors were almost twice as likely touse cocaine as blacks (12 percent vs. 6.1 percent), according to data drawn from the government's National High School Senior Surveys from 1985 to 1989.
Forty percent of white male seniors had used marijuana, compared with 30 percent of black male seniors, according to the governmentstudies, which also found that 88 percent of white male students said they had consumed alcohol in the last year compared with 73 percent of black males.
Analysts say one reason for the disparity is economic. White youths have more money to spend on non-essential uses.
In all cases, the proportion of girls using alcohol and other drugs was less than that for males, the surveys found. "We need to make these facts known and, in our black communities, we need to build on these strengths," Dr. Sullivan said.
Community groups in 14 cities -- including Baltimore -- are participating in the campaign called "By Our Own Hands." Other cities are New York; Los Angeles; Chicago; Philadelphia; Dallas; Houston; Fort Worth, Texas; Raleigh and Durham, N.C.; Detroit; Memphis, Tenn.; Atlanta, and Washington.
The 14 cities have created essay contests, wall murals, youth-led community meetings and other activities around the theme, "We have better things to do than drugs."
The findings that black youths reported less drug use than other races is not new to medical authorities.
U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello, a pediatrician, earlier this year released other surveys depicting the typical teen-ager at risk for becoming an alcoholic as a 16-year-old white male.
Private surveys of schoolchildren conducted by Parents Resource Institute on Drug Abuse of Atlanta have also found higher drug use by whites than blacks. The studies cited yesterday are based on questionnaires voluntarily filled out by students, a method that critics say invites misrepresentation. Dr. Sullivan and others stand by the data.
"People are not clear on it because they see so many black youths being arrested for selling drugs, but there's a big difference between selling and using," said Erica Tollett, senior public policy analyst with the National Black Child Development Institute, a nonprofit study group here.