Tuesday, May 29, 2007

OR Kids Smoke Pot More Than Tobacco--This is Bad, Why?

From the AP and KTVZ in Bend today, a somewhat curious attempt to keep the sentry at the ramparts in the War on Drugs:
State officials released new numbers Tuesday about drug and alcohol use in Oregon, and they call the information startling.

For instance, the Oregon Department of Human Services says, eighth and 11th graders surveyed are more likely to smoke marijuana than tobacco.

And Oregon ranks fourth nationally in alcohol-related deaths. The rate of those deaths has risen by 50% in the last five years.

The rate of 8h-graders who have used alcohol in the past 30 days is 76% higher than the national rate.

Not all the news is bad: Use of Ecstasy is down significantly, and fewer adolescent males report that they drive after drinking.
Those are the headlines; there are some other blurbs on the studies' findings, and you can read the reports in pdf form posted at the Oregon DHS site. I'll say that with respect to regular alcohol use among 8th graders compared nationally, Oregon seems to have a problem. And it's certainly not good to see alcohol-related deaths so high. On the other hand, my sense is that most alcohol deaths are transportation-related--that is, they occur because of drinking and driving, or drinking and boating, etc. One wonders whether cuts in public safety among our highways and waterways over the last decade is more the culprit when it comes to deaths, as opposed to simple abuse.

But as many LO readers know, my antenna start twitching most strongly when I see the assertion made that marijuana use should be of priority concern to Oregonians, and calling the finding that kids experiment with pot more than tobacco either "startling" as DHS does, or "bad news" as KTVZ notes, is itself rather startling to me. And once I dug into the actual reports, I was stunned to see that in point of fact, the news is actually pretty good, especially as concerns smokes and illict drugs.

Let's get the disclaimer out of the way: yes, pot is illegal, and no drug--alcohol, illict or (unprescribed) prescription--is appropriate or harmless for kids. In a perfect world, the rates of use among minors for all three types of substances would be negligible. Being an advocate of adult marijuana decriminalization (as I am) in no way should suggest that making it legal means making it legal for kids.

That said, let's be honest here. In 2003 tobacco accounted for more than 7,000 deaths {pdf}; as far as I know, the death rate attributable to marijuana was (as in every year) zero. Furthermore, what we know about adult smokers is that almost all of them were youth smokers. Thus, what we really want to see is a decline in tobacco use among youth, particularly early experimentation. As placed alongside pot use, in order of preferred outcome we'd like to see:

1) Lower/status quo tobacco use; lower/SQ pot use
2) Lower/SQ tobacco use; higher pot use
3) Higher tobacco use; lower/SQ pot use
4) Higher tobacco use; higher pot use

We won't root for higher youth pot use, so having them both go down is best. But forced to choose, I can't imagine a single doctor or health researcher who'd wouldn't sensibly prefer upward movement in youth pot use to upward movement in tobacco use. So to suggest that choice 2) represents "startling" or "bad" findings is a little bizarre--even if pot use is up, we know that what really messes kids up is to be hooked on smokes before turning 18, and therefore a decrease in those numbers can't be anything but good.

Here's the kicker, though: in truth, the actual scenario playing out in Oregon is not option 2)...but option 1). Yes, although you'd never know from the article, BOTH pot and tobacco use are down among our youth--notably so for pot, but significantly so for tobacco. And while some of the ancillary numbers related to alcohol definitely aren't good, usage rates among kids are ALSO down for alcohol. That's right--the most startling thing about these reports is that drug use is down across the board over the last 10 years, startling because DHS apparently doesn't want success to impede further vigilance. Go to page 20 of the illict drug report {pdf} and you'll see the soft, warm facts:

Alcohol use, 8th graders (last 30 days)--
1997: 35.3%
2006: 31.9% (10% drop)

Alcohol use, 11th graders--
1997: 47.1%
2006: 43.9% (7% drop)

Marijuana use, 8th graders (last 30 days)--
1997: 15.5%
2006: 9.9% (36% drop)

Marijuana use, 11th graders--
1997: 21.9%
2006: 18.7% (15% drop)

Tobacco use, 8th graders (last 30 days)--
1997: 23.0%
2006: 8.7% (62% drop)

Tobacco use, 11th graders--
1997: 24.4%
2006: 15.4% (37% drop) [emphs mine]

OK, I've got a social stats background, but somehow I don't think it was all that necessary to bold the two tobacco trendlines in order to make it clear what the story is in these numbers: youth smoking in Oregon is down, way down, to the point where fewer than 1 in 10 8th graders is looking to experiment with tobacco. That is flat out GREAT news!

Of course it would be a shame if pot use was going up, which is the implication one gets from DHS and KTVZ when they note with alarm that more kids now try pot than cigarettes. But the reduction in early-experimentation with pot is as deep as that among 11th grade tobacco users, and even among 11th grade pot smokerss there was a double-digit decline in the last 10 years.

I mean, what the hell? I think it's smart to not rest on one's laurels, or to trumpet a reduction in numbers that are still much too high for anyone's liking, but DHS is taking that mission a little too strongly to heart. Only an agency seeking to maintain appropriate levels of hysteria would issue reports like this with anything other than a banner headline of achievement: "Pot, Tobacco, Alcohol Use Down Among Oregon Youth--Some Significantly." And beyond that, if one had to choose between pot and tobacco as what we'd prefer kids to be experimenting with, despite the feel of a Hobson's Choice on the surface no health professional in his right mind would want more kids sucking up to Joe Camel than Tommy Chong. And to focus on the reverse as something bad, when in fact both substances are seeing declines, borders on the dishonest in my opinion.