Survey links drug use, youths' sexual activity

Critics say Columbia study exploits typical behavior

August 20, 2004|By Jia Lynn Yang | Jia Lynn Yang,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Teens who have sexually active friends face a significantly higher risk of smoking, drinking and using drugs than do other youths, according to an annual Columbia University teen substance-abuse survey released yesterday.

The survey found that youths 12 to 17 years old who said half or more of their friends were sexually active were found to be 31 times as likely to get drunk, 22 times as likely to try marijuana and more than five times as likely to smoke cigarettes.

Advocates for liberalizing U.S. drug laws accused the writers of the report - which showed no causal connection between sexual activity and drug or alcohol use - of sensationalizing typical teenage behavior to make a stronger case against the use of marijuana and other drugs.

For the first time, the ninth annual survey by Columbia's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse focused on the relationship between teen dating behavior, and tobacco, alcohol and illegal drug use.

Wilson Compton, a physician and division director at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said the links between sexual activity and drug use were less obvious and more complicated than they might seem. Compton said research shows that risky drug use is more likely to be followed by risky sexual activity than the other way around.

The report also showed that drugs had re-emerged as the No. 1 concern of teens after sharing that place a year earlier with academic and social pressures. Nearly half of all 12- to 17-year- olds said they could buy marijuana within a day.

"There's been no progress in reducing the availability of marijuana," said Joseph A. Califano Jr., the former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare who is chairman and president of the national center. "And the concern is that the marijuana today is not the marijuana of the 1970s. It's much stronger."

Keith Stroup, executive director and founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the report was emblematic of the misguided way in which social conservatives want to dictate the drug war.

"It's unrealistic and absurd to suggest that the goal is adolescents never having sex, adolescents never experimenting with marijuana," Stroup said. "It's about time we quit acting like this is shocking behavior."

The survey showed that of the 1,000 teens surveyed by phone, 38 percent said they had friends who smoked marijuana, up from 32 percent last year. In addition, 36 percent had friends who smoked cigarettes, up from 30 percent, and 48 percent had friends who drank regularly, compared with 44 percent.

The Columbia report, released yesterday, found that teens who spent more than 25 hours a week with a boyfriend or a girlfriend were also more likely to drink and use illegal drugs. They were 2.5 times as likely to drink and 4.5 times as likely to have tried marijuana.

The survey also pointed to a trend among girls with boyfriends two or more years older than themselves. Those girls were more than twice as likely to drink and six times as likely to have tried marijuana.

"What's interesting to me about this report is how much they have gone out of their way to dodge the central issues," said Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based lobbying organization.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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