Teen drug use lower among blacks and Asians than whites, study finds

jprice@newsobserver.comNovember 7, 2011 

— Black and Asian adolescents are much less likely to abuse or become dependent on drugs and alcohol than white kids, according to a study by researchers from Duke University and elsewhere that was based on an unusually large sample of kids from all 50 states.

"There is certainly still a myth out there that black kids are more likely to have problems with drugs than white kids, and this documents as clearly as any study we're aware of that the rate of ... substance-related disorders among African American youths is significantly lower ," said Dr. Dan Blazer of the Duke's Department of Psychiatry, a senior author of the study.

The findings were based on confidential federal surveys of 72,561 adolescents ages 12 to 17 from 2005 to 2008, and appeared today in the November issue of the journal Archives of General Psychiatry.

About 9 percent of the white kids in the study sample used substances to a degree that meant they had a disorder, meaning abuse or dependency. That's a bit less than double the percentage of black kids with disorders and nearly three times the rate for a group classified as Asian/Pacific Islander, which was mainly Asian kids. The prevalance of disorders was by far highest among Native Americans, at 15 percent.

Abuse was defined as substance use that caused at least one problem such as legal or relationship issues. Dependence meant meeting several criteria from a list that included tolerance, inability to cut down, giving up activities and continued use despite problems.

Across all racial and ethnic groups studied, the overall level of substance use was troublingly high said the researchers, with 37 percent of the youngsters reporting use of alcohol or drugs in the past year and nearly 8 percent meeting the criteria for a substance abuse disorder.

Native American adolescents had the highest rates of alcohol use (37 percent), followed by whites (35.3 percent) and Hispanics (32.2 percent). That compared with 24.8 percent of African-American and 18.9 percent of Asian teens reported using alcohol in the previous year.

Rates of drug use were similar to alcohol use, with the highest prevalence reported among Native American youths (31 percent), kids of multiple ethnicities (23.3 percent) and whites (20 percent). About 18 percent of African-American and Hispanic youths had used drugs in the previous year, and Asians had the lowest rate at 11.7 percent.

Earlier studies, in some cases restricted to narrow slices of population or geography, had previously indicated that black kids were less likely to have drug problems than white adolescents, but the new study uses a particularly broad and representative sample, with large numbers surveyed in each racial and ethnic group.

Given the strength of the data, the findings should give policy makers firm information to used in making decisions about how to batter tackle drug problems among kids, Blazer said.

It also should give researchers cause for further studies into the specific reasons that substance use and disorders are less common in some groups than others. Blazer said that he could guess why the disorders were less common among black kids than white ones, but that theorizing might simply replace one inaccurate stereotype with another.

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