Reported use of cigarettes and alcohol down sharply in N.H. schools, but e-cigarette use is soaring

Monitor staff
Last modified: Friday, February 05, 2016
New Hampshire high school students are using much less alcohol and tobacco than they did a decade ago, while their use of illegal drugs has not declined nearly as much, according to the latest in a series of statewide surveys on risky teen behavior.

But it’s the relatively new phenomenon of electronic cigarettes, or vaping, that has really taken off, exceeding the use of any other substance in the survey except alcohol, with a quarter of all high school students using them.

The data come from surveys of 14,837 students in 67 New Hampshire public high schools last spring. About 10 percent of those students were in what is classified as the capital area, including Concord, Bow, Hopkinton, Hillsboro-Deering, Merrimack Valley, Pembroke and Pittsfield high schools.

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey has been given since 1991, with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is used by schools, law enforcement and elected officials to set priorities and make policies.

The release of the annual survey comes as a proposed state law would make the process more difficult. Senate Bill 320, titled “relative to non-academic surveys administered by a public school to its students,” would require written permission from parents before any minor student takes any such survey. It is being considered by the Senate Education Committee.

Current law allows parents to opt out of participating but does not require them to opt in – a change that could reduce participation in the surveys and make year-to-year comparisons less valuable.

The survey covers scores of behaviors, including driving without a seatbelt, texting behind the wheel, bullying, date rape and attempted suicide.

On the topic drug use, the results were generally positive when comparing 2015 results with those of 2005.

Smoking of cigarettes or cigars or use of smokeless tobacco was down, sometimes sharply. Those who reported themselves as “currently smoking” cigarettes, for example, fell from 21 percent to 9 percent.

Alcohol remains the most-consumed substance, with 11 percent saying they had taken drinks before age 13, and 30 percent of all high school students saying they currently drank. But there was good news in this area, too, since the percentage of under-13 drinkers fell by half in a decade, while those who reported that they currently drank fell by one quarter.

For illegal drugs, reported use of methamphetamine, inhalants and cocaine all fell sharply between 2005 and 2015, while use of ecstacy remained about the same. Marijuana use slipped over the decade, but only slightly. Six percent still reported using it before age 13, and 22 percent were “currently” smoking pot, compared with 26 percent in 2005.

But reported use of heroin rose, from 2.1 to 2.4 percent, over the decade.

Another major youth concern, taking prescription drugs without a prescription, was much more positive. In 2009, when the question was first asked, 20.4 percent students said they had done, but in 2015 only 13.4 percent said yes – a decline of one third.

And then there’s vaping. Electronic cigarettes, which use a heating element to vaporize a liquid (hence the term “vaping”) that is inhaled, have become very popular in the past two years, as is demonstrated by the profusion of vaping-related stores.

Because the vaping liquid often contains caffeine, there is debate about how safe e-cigarettes are. They were initially greeted as a way to help people give up cigarettes, but concerns have grown about their health effects and whether they replace traditional smoking or just augment it.

A full one-quarter of students – including almost one-third of 12th-graders – reported using the devices at least once during the 30 days before the survey. More males than females reported using them, but not by much: 26 percent for boys, 23 percent for girls.

Earlier data was not available because the technology is so new. In fact, e-cigarettes are currently lumped into the analysis of all tobacco use, even though they don’t contain tobacco.

The results are valued particularly for their relative value – that is, how one area compares relative with another area, or how the statewide report compares relative with reports in years past – rather than absolute value of the number of students reporting any particular behavior. Self-reported surveys can be unreliable, but the assumption is that different areas of the state, or the state in different years, have roughly similar levels of reliability and thus can be compared.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)