How Do Public Health Officials Track Substance Use and Substance-Related Problems?
Public health officials and the general public have a vital interest in tracking how many teens and adults use substances of abuse, as well as how many substance users develop serious problems with abuse or addiction. In the U.S., the most broad-based statistics on these topics commonly come from three ongoing, nationwide federal projects called Monitoring the Future, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Monitoring the Future tracks information on middle school and high school students enrolled in three specific grades, while the Youth Risk Behavior Survey tracks information on students in all four grades of high school. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health tracks information on all American adults, as well as on children age 12 or older.
Monitoring the Future
Monitoring the Future is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and conducted by a research team from the University of Michigan. It tracks substance-related data for 8th grade students, 10th grade students and high school seniors, then uses this data to determine how many teens currently use alcohol or drugs in the average month or year, or have a history of drug or alcohol use at some point in their lifetimes. Monitoring the Future also tracks long-term trends for teen drug and alcohol use, probes teenagers’ beliefs about the dangers involved in using various substances and asks teens to report how hard or easy it is to obtain substances not legally available for use by adolescents or by the population as a whole.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey is conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of an ongoing project called the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. Rather than focusing exclusively on substance-related issues, the survey focuses on a wider range of behaviors that seriously endanger the health and wellbeing of students enrolled in 9th, 10th, 11th or 12th grade. In addition to alcohol use, drug use and tobacco use, these behaviors include involvement in risky sexual practices, consumption of unhealthy diets and maintenance of a physically inactive lifestyle. The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System also gathers information from sources other than Youth Risk Behavior Survey. However, not all states in the U.S. contribute additional information to the system.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health comes from an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services called the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The survey gathers information on legal and illegal substance use from a representative sample of all U.S. adults and teenagers. In addition to raw estimates of the numbers of people who use, abuse or get addicted to alcohol, tobacco and/or various drugs and medications, this information includes detailed breakdowns of the demographic factors that contribute to use, abuse and addiction statistics for each given substance. The main examples of the relevant factors include age, gender, racial/ethnic background, educational level, employment status, history of involvement with the criminal justice system, socioeconomic standing, geographic location within the U.S. and residence in urban, suburban or rural environments.
How Do the Findings Compare?
Each year, analysis of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health includes a comparison of the survey’s results with the results obtained from both Monitoring the Future and the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Since the figures gathered in each of these efforts come from different (although partially overlapping) segments of the population, such a comparison is not exact. However, public health officials can still gain a valuable perspective by looking at each survey’s respective findings.
One of the easiest and most obviously relevant comparisons between the three federal surveys is the difference in recorded rates of monthly marijuana use among high school students. Since the early 2000s, figures for monthly marijuana use among all high schoolers (gathered from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey) have closely followed the figures gathered from Monitoring the Future for just high school seniors. The Monitoring the Future figures for 8th and 10th graders also follow the same general pattern, but at lower levels of overall use consistent with the relatively low rate of marijuana consumption in younger teenagers. Interestingly, while figures from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health for monthly marijuana use among everyone between the ages of 12 and 17 also follow the same general pattern reported by the other two surveys, the overall indicated rate of use is substantially lower than those reported by Monitoring the Future and the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.