County youth health report shows reduction in drug, alcohol use

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter

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Alcohol, marijuana and tobacco use among Clark County youth is continuing to trend downward — welcome news to public health officials.

But with the good news comes some troubling news in the eyes of Clark County Public Health: The percentage of youth who perceive marijuana use to be harmful is also going down.

“That’s a bad thing,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer and public health director. “If kids are perceiving it as less harmful than they have before, then we’re worried those use rates will go up.”

The analysis comes with the release of the 2016 Healthy Youth Survey results. The survey is administered statewide every two years to students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades. Survey answers are voluntary and anonymous. The fall 2016 survey results were released Wednesday afternoon.

With the release of the latest data, county public health staff looked at the 10-year trends among local youth. Tobacco rates have been coming down steadily over the last six to eight years. Among Clark County 10th-graders, for example, 16 percent used cigarettes in 2008 compared to 8 percent in 2016.

And marijuana use is down, too, from 19 percent to 16 percent. That decline was unexpected among local health officials, given the vote to legalize recreational marijuana in November 2012 and the opening of retail stores in summer 2014.

“We were expecting because of accessibility and availability that rates would go up some,” said Adiba Ali, an epidemiologist at Clark County Public Health. “There’s been a lot of concern about easier access and availability.”

Health officials are also concerned about the declining perception of risk. According to the survey, 58 percent of local 10th-graders and 72 percent of 12th-graders think there is little or no risk of harm from trying marijuana a couple of times. About 30 percent of 10th-graders and 45 percent of 12th-graders think there’s no or low risk of harm from regular marijuana use.

Youth alcohol use rates are still high in Clark County, Ali said, but they’re improving. Rates of youth alcohol use, binge drinking and riding with a drinking driver are all steadily improving, she said.

Still, 20 percent of the county’s 10th-graders and 31 percent of 12th-graders admitted to drinking in the previous 30 days. Those numbers are considerably lower among middle school students — 7 percent of eighth-graders and 2 percent of sixth-graders.

“None of the alcohol rates are great, but they’re improving,” Melnick said. “The fact that one in five 10th-graders drank alcohol in the last 30 days doesn’t make us happy.”

What’s even more troubling is the high percentage of youth who drink and use other substances, Melnick said. Among the local kids who drank alcohol in the previous 30 days, 53 percent also used marijuana and 49 percent also used electronic cigarettes.

Those trends continued with other substance use. Of the youth who used marijuana in the previous 30 days, 67 percent also drank alcohol and 42 percent binge drank. And of those who used electronic cigarettes, 63 percent also used marijuana.

“These risk behaviors tend to go together, and that’s particularly concerning,” Melnick said.

One area that appears to be improving is electronic cigarette use among youth. In 2014, 24 percent of 12th-graders and 21 percent of 10th-graders used e-cigarettes. In 2016, those numbers dropped to 17 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

“The trend I don’t think is as straight forward as it should be,” Ali said.

That’s because e-cigarettes are new, rapidly changing products, she said. In addition, there’s been policy changes locally and statewide, such as laws to prohibit the sale of the devices to minors and ban their use in public places where smoking isn’t allowed, and prevention work is getting up and running, Ali said.

“So that may be playing a role,” she said.

Given the limited historical data on e-cigarettes and marijuana use in the legal landscape, public health officials aren’t confident calling either decline a downward trend. That, they said, will take a few more years of data collection.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens,” Ali said.