Substance Abuse

Alcohol is the substance abused most frequently by adolescents, followed by marijuana and tobacco.[1]  In the past month, 39 percent of high school seniors reported drinking some alcohol, almost 23 percent reported using marijuana, and 16 percent reported smoking cigarettes.[1]


More adolescents drink alcohol than smoke cigarettes or use marijuana.[1] Within the past month, almost four out of 10 high school seniors report drinking some alcohol and more than one in five have engaged in “binge drinking” daily in the past two weeks.[1] Drinking endangers adolescents in multiple ways including motor vehicle crashes, the leading cause of death for this age group.[2],[3] Nearly one in four adolescents has ridden in a car with a driver who had been drinking.[4] Genetic factors and life stressors influence adolescents’ alcohol abuse, but parents and guardians can help by monitoring adolescents’ activities and keeping channels of communication open.[5]


Cigarette smoking among adolescents has declined dramatically in the last 15 years. Today, most adolescents do not smoke, but about one in ten has smoked within the past month and the use of smokeless tobacco increased between 2008 and 2010, but has remained fairly steady since 2010.[1] Tobacco use harms nearly every organ in the body,[6] and more than six million children born between 1983 and 2000 will die in adulthood of smoking-related illnesses.[7] Multiple factors influence whether an adolescent becomes a regular smoker, including genetics and having parents or peers who smoke.[8-10] Many adolescents start trying tobacco products at a young age, so prevention efforts in schools, in communities, and in homes, can help and should begin early.

Illicit and Nonillicit Drug Use

Illicit drug use—which includes the abuse of illegal drugs and/or the misuse of prescription medications or household substances—is something many adolescents engage in occasionally, and a few do regularly. By the twelfth grade, about half of adolescents have abused an illicit drug at least once.[1] The most commonly used drug is marijuana but adolescents can find many abused substances, such as prescription medications, glues, and aerosols, in the home.[1] Many factors and strategies can help adolescents stay drug free: Strong positive connections with parents, other family members, school, and religion; having parents present in the home at key times of the day; and reduced access in the home to illegal substances.[11]


[1] Johnston, L. D., O'Malley, P. M., Miech, R. A., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2014). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use: 1975-2013: Overview of key findings on adolescent drug use. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan. Retrieved February 12, 2016, from
[2] Hoyert, D.L. & Xu, J. (2012). Deaths: Final data from 2011. National Vital Statistics Reports, 61(6). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Retrieved February 12, 2016, from
[3] U.S. Department of Transportation. (2014). Young Drivers. DOT HS 812 019. Washington, DC. Retrieved February 12, 2016, from
[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance-United States, 2013. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 63(4). Retrieved February 12, 2016, from
[5] Brody, G. E., Beach, S. R. H., Philibert, R. A., Chen, Y.-f., & Murry, V. M. (2009). Prevention effects moderate the association of 5-HTTLPR and youth risk behavior initiation: Gene x environment hypotheses tested via a randomized prevention design. Child Development, 80(3), 645-661.
[6] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Health effects of cigarette smoking.  Retrieved February 12, 2016, from
[7] Hahn, E. J., Rayens, M. K., Chaloupka, F. J., Okoli, C. T. C., & Yang, J. (2002). Projected smoking-related deaths among U.S. youth: A 2000 update. ImpacTeen Research Paper Series, 22. Retrieved February 12, 2016, from
[8] Mays, D., Gilman, S. E., Rende, R., Luta, G., Tercyak, K. P., & Niaura, R. S. (2014). Parental Smoking exposure and adolescent smoking trajectories. Pediatrics, 133(6), 983-991.
[9] Whitten, L. (2009). Studies link family of genes to nicotine addiction. NIDA Notes, 22(6). Retrieved February 12, 2016, from
[10] Haas, S. A., & Schaefer, D. R. (2014). With a little help from my friends? Asymmetrical social influence on adolescent smoking initiation and cessation. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 55(20), 126-143.
[11] National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2003). Preventing drug use among children and adolescents. Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved February 12, 2016, from
Last updated: July 26, 2016