Substance Abuse

Young Man Having Counselling Session

Substance abuse encompasses a harmful pattern of use of alcohol, tobacco products, and illicit drugs; this includes the presence of substance use and trade within school and campus environments and during school-related activities.

The use of alcohol, tobacco, and other illicit drugs undermines students’ ability to achieve academically, is associated with other harmful behaviors, and is incompatible with a school climate of respect, safety, and support for learning.

While the majority of students do not use alcohol, tobacco products, or illicit drugs, disengaged students are more likely to be users.

Research shows that, among students in eighth to twelfth grades, majorities report they did not use alcohol, tobacco products, or illicit drugs during the past 30 days.  Students who are disengaged in school are more likely to be users. In contrast, students who plan on completing four years of college are much more likely to avoid using alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs.  For example, among eighth-graders, students with college plans are more than four times as likely as those without to be substance-free. 

Alcohol is by far the substance most abused by students.

Most students do not drink; however, those who do are likely to be “binge” drinkers—consuming large quantities of alcohol specifically to “get drunk.”  Binge drinking is associated with poor school performance, and involvement in other health risk behaviors, such as riding with a driver who has been drinking, cigarette smoking, sexual activity, being a victim of dating violence, attempting suicide, and using illicit drugs.  In 2010, nearly a third of all traffic deaths among young drivers ages 15 to 20 were alcohol-related.  Consuming larger quantities of alcohol is also associated a risk factor for cancer among young women with benign breast disease.  Among illicit drugs, marijuana is by far the most commonly used by young people.

Cigarette smoking rates among middle- and high-school students have fallen by more than 50 percent over the past 15 years.

Reducing rates of cigarette smoking among teens has been one of the greatest public health success stories of recent times.  However, some teens may not realize that more recently promoted forms of tobacco—such as small cigars, lozenges, or hookah pipes—carry health dangers equal to or greater than those associated with cigarettes.  


Office of Adolescent Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Adolescent and School Health:


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