Historically speaking, it’s not a bad time to be the liver of a teenager. Or the lungs.

Regular use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs among high school students has been on a long downward trend.

In 2023, 46 percent of seniors said that they’d had a drink in the year before being interviewed; that is a precipitous drop from 88 percent in 1979, when the behavior peaked, according to the annual Monitoring the Future survey, a closely watched national poll of youth substance use. A similar downward trend was observed among eighth and 10th graders, and for those three age groups when it came to cigarette smoking. In 2023, just 15 percent of seniors said that they had smoked a cigarette in their life, down from a peak of 76 percent in 1977.

Illicit drug use among teens has remained low and fairly steady for the past three decades, with some notable declines during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2023, 29 percent of high school seniors reported using marijuana in the previous year — down from 37 percent in 2017, and from a peak of 51 percent in 1979.

There are some sobering caveats to the good news. One is that teen overdose deaths have sharply risen, with fentanyl-involved deaths among adolescents doubling from 2019 to 2020 and remaining at that level in the subsequent years.

Dr. Nora Volkow has devoted her career to studying use of drugs and alcohol. She has been the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse since 2003. She sat down with The New York Times to discuss changing patterns and the reasons behind shifting drug-use trends.

What’s the big picture on teens and drug use?

People don’t really realize that among young people, particularly teenagers, the rate of drug use is at the lowest risk that we have seen in decades. And that’s worth saying, too, for legal alcohol and tobacco.

What do you credit for the change?

One major factor is education and prevention campaigns. Certainly, the prevention campaign for cigarette smoking has been one of the most effective we’ve ever seen.

Some of the policies that were implemented also significantly helped, not just making the legal age for alcohol and tobacco 21 years, but enforcing those laws. Then you stop the progression from drugs that are more accessible, like tobacco and alcohol, to the illicit ones. And teenagers don’t get exposed to advertisements of legal drugs like they did in the past. All of these policies and interventions have had a downstream impact on the use of illicit drugs.

Does social media use among teens play a role?

Absolutely. Social media has shifted the opportunity of being in the physical space with other teenagers. That reduces the likelihood that they will take drugs. And this became dramatically evident when they closed schools because of Covid-19. You saw a big jump downward in the prevalence of use of many substances during the pandemic. That might be because teenagers could not be with one another.

The issue that’s interesting is that despite the fact schools are back, the prevalence of substance use has not gone up to the prepandemic period. It has remained stable or continued to go down. It was a big jump downward, a shift, and some drug use trends continue to slowly go down.

Is there any thought that the stimulation that comes from using a digital device may satisfy some of the same neurochemical experiences of drugs, or provide some of the escapism?

Yes, that’s possible. There has been a shift in the types of reinforcers available to teenagers. It’s not just social media, it’s video gaming, for example. Video gaming can be very reinforcing, and you can produce patterns of compulsive use. So, you are shifting one reinforcer, one way of escaping, with another one. That may be another factor.

Is it too simplistic to see the decline in drug use as a good news story?

If you look at it in an objective way, yes, it’s very good news. Why? Because we know that the earlier you are using these drugs, the greater the risk of becoming addicted to them. It lowers the risk these drugs will interfere with your mental health, your general health, your ability to complete an education and your future job opportunities. That is absolutely good news.

But we don’t want to become complacent.

The supply of drugs is more dangerous, leading to an increase in overdose deaths. We’re not exaggerating. I mean, taking one of these drugs can kill you.

What about vaping? It has been falling, but use is still considerably higher than for cigarettes: In 2021, about a quarter of high school seniors said that they had vaped nicotine in the preceding year. Why would teens resist cigarettes and flock to vaping?

Most of the toxicity associated with tobacco has been ascribed to the burning of the leaf. The burning of that tobacco was responsible for cancer and for most of the other adverse effects, even though nicotine is the addictive element.

What we’ve come to understand is that nicotine vaping has harms of its own, but this has not been as well understood as was the case with tobacco. The other aspect that made vaping so appealing to teenagers was that it was associated with all sorts of flavors — candy flavors. It was not until the F.D.A. made those flavors illegal that vaping became less accessible.

My argument would be there’s no reason we should be exposing teenagers to nicotine. Because nicotine is very, very addictive.

Anything else you want to add?

We also have all of this interest in cannabis and psychedelic drugs. And there’s a lot of interest in the idea that psychedelic drugs may have therapeutic benefits. To prevent these new trends in drug use among teens requires different strategies than those we’ve used for alcohol or nicotine.

For example, we can say that if you take drugs like alcohol or nicotine, that can lead to addiction. That’s supported by extensive research. But warning about addiction for drugs like cannabis and psychedelics may not be as effective.

While cannabis can also be addictive, it’s perhaps less so than nicotine or alcohol, and more research is needed in this area, especially on newer, higher-potency products. Psychedelics don’t usually lead to addiction, but they can produce adverse mental experiences that can put you at risk of psychosis.

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