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Youth Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug Use (see data for this topic)

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Why This Topic Is Important
Youth alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use is a significant public health concern linked to a wide range of academic, social, and health problems (1). Alcohol is the most widely used substance among the nation's young people and initiation peaks in the years between Grades 7 and 11 (2). Underage drinking is associated with risky health behaviors (e.g., unsafe sexual practices), injuries, motor vehicle accidents, impaired cognitive functioning, poor academic performance, physical violence, and suicide attempt (2). Binge drinking places youth and those around them at even higher risk for negative outcomes (2). Drinking during adolescence increases the likelihood of alcohol dependence in adulthood, and excessive alcohol consumption can have long-term health consequences, including liver disease, cancer, and cardiovascular disease (2).

Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable and premature death in the U.S., resulting in more than 480,000 deaths annually (3). Smoking causes cumulative, irreversible harm, and most long-term smokers start when they are teens or young adults (3, 4). Tobacco use or smoking in any form—including e-cigarettes—is unsafe (4). Marijuana use, too, is linked to adverse effects such as respiratory problems, anxiety attacks, cognitive difficulties, and coordination loss, as well as aggressive behavior and poor academic performance among youth (5).
Despite historically low rates of heroin and non-heroin narcotic use among U.S. teens in recent years, the rate of opioid-related overdose death has increased dramatically—tripling between 1999 (0.8 deaths per 100,000 teens ages 15-19) and 2015 (2.4 deaths per 100,000) (6, 7).

For more information on this topic, see’s Research & Links section.

Sources for this narrative:

1. (n.d.). Substance use/misuse. Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs. Retrieved from:

2.   Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Prevention of Underage Drinking. (2020). Report to Congress on the prevention and reduction of underage drinking. Retrieved from:

3.   Office of the Surgeon General. (2014). The health consequences of smoking—50 years of progress. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from:

4.   Wang, T. W., et al. (2019). Tobacco product use and associated factors among middle and high school students — United States, 2019. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 68(12), 1-22. Retrieved from:

5.   National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (n.d.). Marijuana. Retrieved from:

6.   Johnston, L. D., et al. (2021). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use 1975-2020: 2020 overview, key findings on adolescent drug use. University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Retrieved from:

7.   Curtain, S. C., et al. (2017). Drug overdose deaths among adolescents aged 15-19 in the United States: 1999-2015. National Center for Health Statistics. Retrieved from:
Policy Implications
Public policy can promote early identification of known risk factors for youth substance misuse, such as poor school performance, truancy, lack of parental supervision, aggressive behavior, drug availability, and substance use by peers (1, 2). Policies and programs also can promote protective factors, such as school engagement, positive community connections, and academic success (1). Screening and early intervention can be effective, especially when tailored specifically to population and risk factors (3). Controlling youth smoking, vaping, and alcohol consumption also requires particular attention to mass media and marketing (4, 5).

Policy and program options for addressing youth alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use include:
  • Prioritizing screening and early identification of risk factors correlated with substance use, especially among middle school youth; assessments should target mental health issues, as they often co-occur with substance abuse (3, 6)
  • Developing comprehensive policies that promote school and community connectedness among youth and help them develop the knowledge, skills, and motivation to avoid substance use; such policies should focus on preadolescence through young adulthood and involve support from families, schools, colleges, community organizations, government, and others (4, 5, 6)
  • Recognizing that substance misuse and mental health disorders are inherently health conditions, embedding research-based prevention and treatment services into mainstream health care settings, and expanding behavioral health care accessibility, coverage, and coordination across systems (3)
  • Promoting youth focused, mass media counter-marketing strategies to combat tobacco and alcohol advertising; also reducing youth exposure to tobacco and alcohol marketing by monitoring compliance with marketing standards (4, 5)
  • Continuing to enforce, strengthen, and extend evidence-based legislation such as beer keg registration laws and increased prices on alcohol and tobacco products (4, 5, 7)
For more information, see’s Research & Links section or visit the Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Prevention of Underage Drinking, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. Also see Policy Implications for School Climate and Children's Emotional Health on

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Patrick, M. E., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2013). Prevalence and predictors of adolescent alcohol use and binge drinking in the United States. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 35(2), 193-200. Retrieved from:

2.  Marshall, E. J. (2014). Adolescent alcohol use: Risks and consequences. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 49(2), 160-164. Retrieved from:

3.  Office of the Surgeon General. (2016). Facing addiction in America: The Surgeon General's report on alcohol, drugs, and health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from:

4.  Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Prevention of Underage Drinking. (2020). Report to Congress on the prevention and reduction of underage drinking. Retrieved from:

5.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Preventing tobacco use among youth and young adults: A report of the Surgeon General. Retrieved from:

6.  National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Underage drinking. Retrieved from:

7.  Sacks, V. H., et al. (2014). An analysis of state underage drinking policies and adolescent alcohol use. Child Trends. Retrieved from:
How Children Are Faring
According to a 2017-2019 survey of California public school students, 7% of 7th graders, 15% of 9th graders, 23% of 11th graders, and 29% of students in non-traditional programs had used alcohol or drugs in the previous 30 days. An estimated 8% of 11th graders had binge drunk (consumed five or more drinks of alcohol within a couple of hours) at least once in the previous month, and 13% had either driven when they had been using alcohol or drugs, or had ridden with a driver who had been using, at least once in their lifetimes. E-cigarette use typically was more common than cigarette smoking: 26% of 11th graders had used e-cigarettes at least once in their lifetimes, compared with 8% who had smoked cigarettes. Lifetime marijuana use among California 11th graders was 29% in 2017-2019, down from 41% in 2011-2013, with percentages ranging from 17% to 56% across counties with data.

Across grade levels, the estimated proportion of students who have ever used alcohol, cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and marijuana has fallen in recent years. In general, students with low levels of school connectedness, those whose parents did not finish high school, and gay, lesbian, and bisexual students more frequently report substance use than their peers in other groups.

High school staff reports from 2017-2019 show that more than half (52%) considered alcohol and drug use among students at their school a moderate or severe problem. More than three-quarters (77%) agreed that substance abuse prevention was an important goal at their school, and more than two-thirds (67%) reported that their school provided at least some substance use prevention education.