Despite an overall decrease in substance use among youth in the U.S., challenges persist.

According to a new report from the National Association of Counties, Addressing Youth Substance Use at the County Level:

  • Approximately 30 percent of high school students are still currently using alcohol.
  • Approximately 20 percent of high school students report binge drinking.
  • Approximately 20 percent of high school students report marijuana use.
  • Nearly 12 percent of high school students report using illicit or injectable drugs.
  • Of all the alcohol consumed in the U.S., 11 percent is by youth ages 12 to 20.
  • Adolescent vaping has nearly doubled from 2017 rates.

The report was featured at an Oct. 29 gathering hosted by NACo, where experts from federal, state and local public health agencies and advocacy groups gathered discussed current trends and patterns around youth substance use, prevention, intervention and treatment.

Event presenters included Christina Nicholas, director of Substance Use Prevention and Treatment Services with the Oakland Community Health Network, and Carlos Blanco, MD, PhD, director of the Division of Epidemiology, Services, and Prevention Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

With an extensive background in behavioral health, Nicholas manages all publicly funded substance use disorder treatment and prevention services in Oakland County, Michigan. She said the biggest hurdle people face in getting help is the stigma still associated with substance misuse. “It’s like what used to be the case for mental health,” she said. “We need to recast addiction from a weakness to the complex brain disease that it is.” 

Blanco, a national expert in the epidemiology and treatment of addictive disorders, suggested that rebranding those in recovery as “substance use survivors,” on par with cancer survivors, could go a long way toward reducing the stigma.

Chairing the panel discussion was Simon McNabb, senior policy advisor at CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health, who spoke about the tobacco and vape industry's use of flavors to appeal to young people and what is being done to combat the problem. 

Diamond Miller, PMH, shared her community activism experience as a specialist with the Truth Initiative, America’s largest nonprofit public health organization dedicated to ending tobacco use. “We have to bring youth to the table to fight vaping. Youth engagement and empowerment will move the needle on all substance use,” she said. 

The panel also stressed the importance of understanding how interactions between people and their environments contribute to the continuum of problems related to drug use. “The social determinants of health cannot be ignored,” said Nicholas. Her county programs target the most at-risk communities and approach addiction as a family disease.

“We have to address the root causes of addiction, the adverse childhood experiences,” said Carolyn Stalgaitis, a research scientist with behavior change marketing company Rescue Agency. She works with government, nonprofits and corporations to help drive healthy behaviors through trauma-informed messaging.

For more on the needs, gaps and opportunities in addressing youth substance use at the county level, download the NACo report. It looks at the methods counties are using to increase education, awareness, training, capacity and resources.