DURHAM — Black and Asian adolescents are much less likely to abuse or become dependent on drugs and alcohol than white kids, according to a Duke University-led study 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 Duke's Department of Psychiatry, a senior author of the study.
The findings, based on analysis of confidential federal surveys of 72,561 adolescents ages 12 to 17 from 2005 through 2008, were released Monday and appear in the November issue of the journal Archives of General Psychiatry.
About 9 percent of the white kids in the study sample used substances in ways that indicated they had a disorder, meaning abuse or dependency. That's nearly twice the percentage of black kids with such disorders and nearly three times the rate for a group classified as Asian/Pacific Islander, which mainly was Asian kids. The prevalence 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 inability to cut down, giving up other activities and continued use despite problems.
Across all racial and ethnic groups, 37 percent reported using drugs or alcohol in the past year and nearly 8 percent met the criteria for a substance abuse disorder.
Among kids who abused illegal drugs, marijuana was the most prevalent choice, followed by prescription opioids such as oxycodone, which have passed inhalants such as glue as a means of getting high.
Nearly 26 percent of the kids using marijuana had problems with abuse or dependency on the drug.
The study should give researchers a starting point for further study into topics such as the specific reasons that substance use and disorders are less common in some groups than others, Blazer said.
He has some theories, but said that guessing without proper study could simply replace some inaccurate stereotypes with others.
It's widely known among substance abuse counselors and psychiatrists who work with Native Americans that problems vary greatly from one tribe to another, Blazer said. A shortcoming of the data is that it couldn't be broken down into smaller subsets such as tribes, or to separate the Asians and Pacific Islanders, to make it easier to dig deeper into the questions raised by the study, he said.
In addition to three Duke researchers, the study also involved a scientist from the University of Pennsylvania and another from the Veterans Health Administration in Washington, D.C.
Earlier studies, in some cases restricted to narrower slices of population or geography, had previously indicated that black kids were less likely to have drug problems than white adolescents, Blazer said. 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 facts to use in making decisions about how to better tackle drug problems among kids, Blazer said.
"It's very hard when you look at data like this to say we don't have a problem," he said. "Then it becomes sort of an imperative to do something."