Myths & Facts About Teen Substance Abuse

Myths & Facts about Teen Substance Abuse and Drug Use

According to the most recent data from the annual Monitoring the Future Survey, between 48 percent and 50 percent of adolescents had used an illicit drug by the time they left high school.[1] Pride Surveys 2015–16 national data set also shows that by the 12th grade almost 33 percent of seniors have used an illicit drug in the past year and 23 percent have used an illicit drug in the last 30 days.[2]

Similarly, the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that by age 15, about 33 percent of teens have had at least one drink, with that figure jumping to 60 percent by age 18.[3]

Based on data from 2006-2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that, on average, alcohol is a factor in the deaths of 4,358 young people under age 21 each year.[4]

Based on statistics and anecdotal evidence, it’s clear that, while trends may be declining, alcohol and drug use among adolescents is still a major issue affecting the country. Part of the prevalence of these trends may be attributed to misinformation and widely accepted myths. For that reason, below we have detailed seven myths and facts about teen substance abuse and drug use.

Myth #1: You can use drugs occasionally and not get addicted

The truth is, even occasional drug use can very easily lead to a dangerous addiction. As Alan Leshner, the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, notes, “every drug user starts out as an occasional user, and that initial use is a voluntary and controllable decision. But, as time passes and drug use continues, a person goes from being a voluntary to a compulsive drug user.”[5] In fact, “a vast body of hard evidence shows that it is virtually inevitable that prolonged drug use will lead to addiction.”[6]

Myth #2: You have to use drugs or alcohol for a long time before they can hurt you.

While most people are aware of the long-term effects of consuming drugs or alcohol, in reality, a substance has an impact on you from the moment you take it, whether by smoking, drinking, injecting, or in some other way. Drugs impact the brain in dramatic and dangerous ways, and they can cause it to send the wrong signals to the body. These signals can cause a person to stop breathing, have a heart attack or go into a coma. This can happen the first time the drug is used.[7]

Myth #3: Alcohol is not as harmful as other drugs.

The truth is that consuming alcohol increases your risk for many deadly diseases, including diseases of the heart (stroke, high blood pressure), the liver (alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis), the pancreas (pancreatitis), and more. It also increases your risk of developing certain cancers, such as cancers of the mouth, throat, liver, and breast.[8]

Plus, binge drinking (consuming an excessive amount of alcohol within a short period of time) has its own unique dangers. Drinking too much alcohol too quickly can lead to alcohol poisoning, which can kill you.[9]

Myth #4: Drug addiction is a choice.

This is a common misconception, but one that scientists and neurologists largely disagree with. While the initial drug use may be voluntary, “over time, continued use of addictive drugs changes your brain—at times in dramatic, toxic ways, at others in more subtle ways, but virtually always in ways that result in compulsive and even uncontrollable drug use.”[10]

Addiction is defined as a disease by most medical associations, including the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Similarly, “addiction is caused by a combination of behavioral, environmental and biological factors. Genetic risk factors account for about half of the likelihood that an individual will develop an addiction.”[11]

Myth #5: Substance addiction is a disease and so there’s nothing you can do about it.

This common myth is partly true, in that most experts agree that addiction is a brain disease, as noted above. But that doesn’t mean that addicts have to be helpless victims. “The brain changes associated with addiction can be treated and reversed through therapy, medication, exercise, and other treatments.”[12]

The center on addiction notes that about 25-50% of people with a substance abuse addiction appear to have a severe, chronic disorder. However, “the good news is that even the most severe, chronic form of the disorder can be manageable and reversible, usually with long-term treatment and continued monitoring and support for recovery.”[13]

Myth #6: Drinking alcohol underage is fine because it’s a legal substance and adults drink it.

While alcohol is a legal substance for adults 21 and older in the United States, consuming alcohol as a minor can have a significant, negative impact on the body. “A young person’s brain and body are still growing. Drinking alcohol can cause learning problems or lead to adult alcoholism. People who begin drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to abuse or become dependent on alcohol than those who begin drinking after age 21.”[14]

Myth #7: Alcohol is a safer alternative for teens than “hard” drugs.

Working off of Myth #6, many people mistakenly believe that alcohol consumption is a safer alternative than other illicit substances. However, research shows that young people’s brains keep developing well into their twenties. Alcohol can alter this development, potentially affecting both the brain’s structure and its function, meaning how well it processes information. This may cause cognitive or learning problems and/or make the brain more prone to alcohol dependence.”[15]

Myth #8: Smoking pot is not as bad for you as smoking cigarettes.

Data from the Drug Enforcement Administration shows that this is a widely held belief among high school students, as less than 20% of 12th graders think occasional use is harmful, while less than 40% see regular use as harmful (lowest numbers since 1983).[16]

However, the fact remains that smoke from marijuana combustion has been shown to contain many of the same toxins, irritants, and carcinogens as tobacco smoke.[17] “Beyond just what’s in the smoke alone, marijuana is typically smoked differently than tobacco. Marijuana smokers tend to inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer than cigarette smokers, which leads to a greater exposure per breath to tar.”[18]

Bonus Myth: If you get drunk, coffee, greasy food, and/or a cold shower will sober you up quickly.

While perpetuated by urban myth, common practice, and culture, the fact remains that “once alcohol is in the bloodstream, only time will make a person sober.”[19] The truth is, “on average, it takes 2 to 3 hours for a single drink to leave the body. Nothing can speed up the process, including drinking coffee, taking a cold shower, or ‘walking it off.’”[20]

Using Data from Your School to Fight Back Against Teen Substance Abuse

As the researchers behind the Monitoring the Future survey note, “how vigorously the nation responds to teenage substance use, how accurately it identifies the emerging substance abuse problems, and how well it comes to understand the effectiveness of policy and intervention efforts largely depend on the ongoing collection of valid and reliable data.”[21]

For over thirty years, Pride Surveys has been helping schools collect data on teen substance abuse perceptions and drug use trends in their communities. We can help you, too. Learn more about the different types of surveys we offer, including substance abuse surveys or check out our most recent National Summary data set.

Questions? Ready to get started? Give us a call at or contact us online.

[1]Johnston, Lloyd D., et al. “2016 Overview: Key Findings on Adolescent Drug Use.” Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use 1975-2016. Retrieved from http://www.monitoringthefuture.org//pubs/monographs/mtf-overview2016.pdf on April 27, 2017.

[2]“Pride Surveys Questionnaire for Grades 6 thru 12 Standard Report: 2015-2016 Pride National Summary.” Retrieved from http://www.pridesurveys.com/customercenter/us15ns.pdf?24559c on April 27, 2017.

[3]Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Table 2.19B: Alcohol Use in Lifetime, Past Year, and Past Month, by Detailed Age Category: Percentages, 2014 and 2015. Rockville, MD: SAMHSA, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-DetTabs-2015/NSDUH-DetTabs-2015/NSDUH-DetTabs-2015.htm#tab2-19b on April 27, 2017.

[4]Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Alcohol and Public Health: Alcohol-Related Disease Impact (ARDI). Atlanta, GA: CDC, 2016. Retrieved from http://go.usa.gov/xkde2 on April 27, 2017.

[5]Leshner, Alan I. “Oops: How Casual Drug Use Leads to Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse: National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://archives.drugabuse.gov/Published_Articles/Oops.html on April 28, 2017.

[6]Ibid.

[7]“Drug Myths and Facts.” St. Mary’s College of California. Retrieved from https://www.stmarys-ca.edu/sites/default/files/attachments/files/drug-myths-and-facts.pdf on April 28, 2017.

[8]“Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” Alcohol & Your Health. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/alcohols-effects-body on April 28, 2017.

[9]“Underage Drinking: Myths vs. Facts.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Center for Abuse Prevention. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from http://www.stopalcoholabuse.gov/media/pdf/MythsFactsBrochure_508compliant.pdf on April 28, 2017.

[10]“Addiction (Alcohol and Substance Abuse): Myths and Facts.” Community Champions Initiative. Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Retrieved from https://www.ok.gov/odmhsas/documents/Addiction%20myths%20and%20facts.pdf on April 28, 2017.

[11]“Addiction as a Disease.” The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Retrieved from https://www.centeronaddiction.org/what-addiction/addiction-disease#.WQOgjxPyuM8 on April 28, 2017.

[12]“Five consistent myths about Drug Abuse and Addiction.” Association of Intervention Specialists. Retrieved from http://www.associationofinterventionspecialists.org/five-consistent-myths-about-drug-abuse-and-addiction/ on April 28, 2017.

[13]“Addiction as a Disease.” The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Retrieved from https://www.centeronaddiction.org/what-addiction/addiction-disease#.WQOgjxPyuM8 on April 28, 2017.

[14]Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings, NSDUH Series H-41, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 11-4658. Rockville, MD: Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2011.

[15]“Underage Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/UnderageDrinking/UnderageFact.htm on April 28, 2017.

[16]The U.S. Department of Education, The Drug Enforcement Administration. “Growing Up Drug Free: A Parent’s Guide to Prevention.” Justice.Gov. Retrieved from http://www.justice.gov/dea/pr/multimedia-library/publications/growing-up-drug-free.pdf on April 28, 2017.

[17]“Marijuana and Lung Health.” Smoking Facts. American Lung Association. Retrieved from http://www.lung.org/stop-smoking/smoking-facts/marijuana-and-lung-health.html on April 28, 2017.

[18]Wu T-C, Tashkin DP, Djahed B, Rose JE. Pulmonary hazards of smoking marijuana as compared with tobacco. N Engl J Med. 1988;318(6):347-351.

[19]“Drug Myths and Facts.” St. Mary’s College of California. Retrieved from https://www.stmarys-ca.edu/sites/default/files/attachments/files/drug-myths-and-facts.pdf on April 28, 2017.

[20]“Underage Drinking: Myths vs. Facts.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Center for Abuse Prevention. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from http://www.stopalcoholabuse.gov/media/pdf/MythsFactsBrochure_508compliant.pdf on April 28, 2017.

[21]Johnston, Lloyd D., et al. “2016 Overview: Key Findings on Adolescent Drug Use.” Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use 1975-2016. Retrieved from http://www.monitoringthefuture.org//pubs/monographs/mtf-overview2016.pdf on April 27, 2017.



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