Because Adolescents Matter Now

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Alcohol, tobacco & other drugs

For the majority of adolescents, experimentation with tobacco, alcohol, and drugs represents a brief period of testing limits that is often characteristic of adolescence.  In California, in 2009, over 80% of 12-17 year olds report that they have never tried drugs (1).  It is extended and frequent use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs that present a risk to adolescents’ well-being. Frequent use or dependency can lead to negative consequences including direct physiological harm, impaired judgment leading to risk-taking or victimization, disengagement from school, and the support of illegal drug trafficking that has a profound effect on community life. In addition, adolescent substance use, particularly tobacco and alcohol, can pave the way for adult addictions.

Nationally, in 2010, teen alcohol use reached a historic low (2).  However, alcohol continues to be the most popular drug among California youth. Frequency of monthly alcohol use increases fivefold between 7th and 12th graders.  In 2009, 25% of 7th graders had tried alcohol at least once compared to 62% of 11th graders (3).  Also, 94% of 7th graders had not engaged in binge drinking in the last 30 days, compared to only 77% of 11th graders (3).  Among 11th graders 11% reported engaging in binge drinking on 3 or more days in the last month (3).  Drinking causes problems in daily life for some teens. For example, 6% of 11th grade students say that drinking has hurt their school work or led to unwanted or unprotected sex (3).

National surveys indicate that tobacco or nicotine is also one of the most commonly used substances among adolescents (4).  One estimate suggests that by the time they are seniors half of teens nationwide have smoked cigarettes.  Earlier use of tobacco increases the risk of nicotine dependency in adulthood (4).  Fortunately, only a minority of adolescents report being current smokers: 4.2% of 12-17 and 13.9% of 18-24 year olds (1).  Of teens who have ever smoked, 69.3% had not smoked any cigarettes in the last 30 days (1).  Of those who had smoked, 12.7% had smoked 1 cigarette or less each day, 15.8% had smoked 2-5 cigarettes each day and only about 2% had smoked more than 6 each day (1).  White adolescents have higher rates of smoking than other groups of youth (3).

Nationally, use of illicit drugs such as marijuana and ecstasy is much less prevalent than use of alcohol and tobacco (2, 4).  However, while alcohol use continues to decline, use of these drugs is slowly rising (2).  In California, five percent of 7th grade students and 17% of 11th grade students report having ever used any illicit drugs (3). Marijuana remains the most commonly used illicit drug, with 65% of 11th graders reporting ever having used it and 19% report having used it in the last 30 days (3).  In comparison, 3%, 3% and 5% of 7th, 9th and11th graders, respectively, had used cocaine, methamphetamines or ecstasy or other psychedelic in the last 30 days (3).

Learn More

Data and research are essential tools for raising awareness of adolescent health issues, to plan programs and service delivery, and to formulate policy at the state and local levels.  CAHC is committed to maintaining a website that serves as a gateway to a wide array of resources, and regularly updating our site to include the most up-to-date research.  Direct links are provided when possible, and abstracts are provided for journal articles.

Navigate to the upper right hand corner of this page for a more in-depth look at this health topic.  Sections include research, resources, and youth voices.

Please contact us if you have additional information you think should be included.


(1) California Health Interview Survey.  CHIS 2009 Adolescent Public Use File. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 2011.

(2) Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan, 2010.

(3) California Healthy Kids Survey, 2007-09 Statewide Results: Main Report San Francisco: WestEd Health and Human Development Program for the California Department of Education.

(4) Adolescent Substance Use: America’s #1 Public Health Problem.  New York: National Center on Addiction and Substance Use, Columbia University, 2010.