THE GOOD news about the federal government's latest study of drug abuse among teens is that it contains less bad news this year.
For the first time since 1992, the percentage of teen-agers using illicit drugs dropped. The decrease from 1997 wasn't large -- only 2.4 percentage-point decline for 10th-graders and two-tenths of one percentage point for 12th-graders.
But officials say it represents a rare optimistic sign in a decade marked by a disturbing increase in the percentage of teen-agers using substances ranging from cigarettes to alcohol to heroin.
Among the most promising trends were "noticeable" turnarounds the percentage of teens using marijuana and amphetamines. Alcohol use and smoking dropped, too.
During a recent visit to Baltimore, White House drug policy chief Barry R. McCaffrey explained the importance of keeping close tabs on teen-agers' drug habits. Research shows that teens who reach age 19 without abusing drugs aren't apt to become addicted. And the government can accurately predict how many teens are likely to experiment with drugs in the future by gauging in the future by gauging their views about illegal substances today.
Fortunately, the latest research shows that teen-agers' attitudes about drugs are moving in the right direction. Teens are increasingly concerned about the risks of marijuana.
Identifying the roots of success can be tricky for a problem so complicated. Lloyd Jonston, the University of Michigan researcher who conducts the government's survey, suspects fewer teens are smoking because of extensive media coverage of lawsuits against tobacco companies.
Mr. McCaffrey also believes the modest drop in drug-abusing teens is the result of a reinvigorated national program to publicize the dangers of illegal drugs.
If so, the message bears repeating. Despite modest declines in overall abuse, use of crack and powder cocaine is rising. What's more, by eighth grade, 22 percent of kids have tried marijuana.
Any drop in teen drug use is welcome. Obviously, though, this good news needs to get better.
Pub Date: 12/30/98