Girls Using Pills, Smoking More Than Boys
Government's Findings Counter
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 9, 2006
Teenage girls, having caught up to their
male counterparts in illegal drug use and alcohol
consumption, now have the dubious distinction of
surpassing boys in smoking and prescription drug abuse. In
the past two years, in fact, more young women than men
started using marijuana, alcohol and cigarettes, according
to government findings being released today.
The results are doubly disturbing,
researchers said, because they run counter to trends
indicating an overall decline in teenage drug use and
because young women appear to suffer more serious health
consequences as a result.
"It's really sad the girls are winning,"
said Warren Seigel, chairman of pediatrics at Brooklyn's
Coney Island Hospital. "This isn't the game they should be
Adolescent girls who smoke, drink or
take drugs are at a higher risk of depression, addiction
and stunted growth. And because substance abuse often goes
hand in hand with risky sexual behavior, they are more
likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease or
become pregnant, warns the White House Office of National
Drug Control Policy, which will announce its findings in
The new analysis is based on the 2004
National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which interviewed
members of 70,000 households. Conducted annually by the
federal government since 1971, the survey is a highly
regarded, detailed look at adult and teenage behaviors
over three decades.
There is no single reason why girls are
smoking, drinking and taking pills more than ever.
Academics, therapists, teachers and teenagers themselves
report that today's young women live in an increasingly
stressful environment; many are worried about their
appearance, eager to date older boys or recovering from
physical or sexual abuse. Unlike young men, who often use
illegal substances for an adrenalin rush, teenage girls
use alcohol or drugs as an escape.
"Girls want to do what older guys are
doing or they want to be cool," said Meghan Ward, 18, a
volunteer in a Connecticut community service group called
Peer Advocates. "Girls do feel a lot of stress --
everything from school, to most of us work, we have
boyfriends and we want to maintain good friendships. It's
The results came as something of a
surprise to John Walters, director of the White House
program, since illegal drug use by children ages 12 to 17
has fallen 19 percent in the past 5 years, a statistic
President Bush touted in his recent State of the Union
"We want to make sure we continue the
decline and deal effectively with the current
circumstance," Walters said in an interview.
While some progress has been made, the
administration statistic misses the fact that the use of
alcohol and prescription drugs is rising, said Joseph A.
Califano Jr., chairman of the National Center on Addiction
and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
"We have not done a good job of keeping
alcohol and drugs out of the hands of kids," he said. In
Columbia's latest survey, 42 percent of teenagers reported
they would have no trouble purchasing marijuana in a day.
"That's 11 million kids."
In 2002, 2003 and 2004, girls exceeded
boys as first-time marijuana smokers, and they far surpass
young men when it comes to prescription drug abuse,
according to the government survey. In 2004, the last year
for which data are available, 1.5 million girls began
drinking, 730,000 started smoking cigarettes and 675,000
began smoking marijuana.
Califano, who is releasing a book today
titled "Women Under the Influence," criticized Bush's
proposal to trim drug prevention and treatment programs
while increasing law enforcement in those areas.
"The only way to get hooked is to use,
so prevention funds are very, very important," he said.
Califano and Seigel said adolescent
girls develop addictions more easily and are more prone to
depression than their male counterparts. The White House
report cited studies that indicate that girls who used
marijuana daily were five times more likely to face
depression in young adulthood.
In many cases, concerns over weight and
self-esteem factor heavily in girls' decisions to smoke or
use prescription drugs. Laura Thurston, a senior at
Sheehan High School outside New Haven, Conn., knows
cheerleaders who are thin but nevertheless take diet
Magazines, reality television and movies
portray young female celebrities as successful, thin --
and drug users, said Jessica Morales, another member of
Peer Advocates. "Girls are more vulnerable to those
stereotypes," she said.
Young girls even face increased pressure
from the beverage industry, said Craig Turner, director of
youth and social services in Wallingford, Conn. "They've
been creating new products specifically geared toward
women," he said. "They're called alcopops --
fruit-flavored drinks, enhanced lemonades, flavored hard
liquors. Where taste alone used to deter kids, they like
the taste of these."
Many people complain that parents are
neglecting their responsibilities. In his 14 years as a
therapist at the Cross Creek Manor specialty boarding
school in southern Utah, Garth Lasater said he has seen "a
sharp decline in the family; more and more kids left
In Connecticut, more parents are
allowing young people to drink in their homes -- as long
as they do not drive, said members of Peer Advocates. But
as Morales put it: Adults should "stop acting cool and act
more like a parent."