Patterns of substance use among youth over time shed light on intervention strategies

Picture of a young woman smoking a cigarette.

Alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco use among youth are of particular concern to public health researchers because of its prevalence and long term health effects. However, there has been little research on patterns of substance use as youth get older, leaving many questions unanswered. For example, how do youth go from using just one substance to using more? How do family relationships affect substance use?

Our most recent publication from the Flint Adolescent Study attempted to answer these questions. Published in the May issue in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, the results shed light on how to develop effective substance use interventions.

The FAS research team found that as youth age, it becomes increasingly difficult to stop using substances altogether. In addition, being a user of multiple substances raises the probability of using additional substances. The study showed a greater than 30% chance of alcohol and marijuana users becoming alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana users over time.

We also found that strong connections with school and positive attitudes toward school are protective factors in preventing substance use. In other terms, these connections help youth cope with the pressures to engage in substance use and ultimately aid in preventing it. Lastly, the data revealed an association between substance use and gender, race, and peer and parent substance use.

These results demonstrate the urgency for introducing interventions earlier on in adolescence, when beliefs and values are more likely to change. What’s more, it’s necessary to place greater emphasis on developing interventions focused on multiple substance use.

Data for this study came from the Flint Adolescent Study, a long-term study of 850 at-risk youth in Flint, MI, that began in 1994. Youth were followed from ages 16 to 21 and the study is now in its second generation, where the children of the original youth are now being followed.

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