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Drugs and alcohol

About 28% of college students now abstain from alcohol, vs. 20% in 2002

abstain from alcohol

A new study finds that considerably more more college-age Americans now abstain from alcohol than they did in 2002.

Between 2002 and 2018, the number of U.S. college students aged 18-22 who abstained from alcohol increased from 20% to 28%. For those not in college, the number of abstainers rose from 24% to 30%. And alcohol abuse among both groups decreased by roughly half. 

The study appeared in the journal JAMA Pediatrics on October 12. It used data from a nationally representative survey of 182,722 young adults. It also looked at prescription drug use.

A surprising drop in alcohol use among young people

The researchers were particularly surprised by the drop in alcohol use and misuse. 

“We’re encouraged by the significant decreases in alcohol use disorder, for both college and non-college students,” said lead author Sean Esteban McCabe, the director of the Center for the Study of Drugs, Alcohol, Smoking and Health at the University of Michigan School of Nursing.  

“The prevalence of alcohol use disorder in both groups in 2018 was roughly half of what it was in 2002,” he said.

“We are excited to learn about these drops in disordered drinking, as alcohol-related consequences are one of the leading causes of mortality and morbidity for young adults,” he said. 

Changing landscape

But the study also found that the number of young adults using marijuana has increased. 

“Points of concern that deserve more attention are the rise in co-use of alcohol and marijuana, as we know that polysubstance use can have more negative consequences and be more difficult to treat,” said co-author Ty Schepis, a professor of psychology at Texas State University. 

These findings indicate that the substance use landscape has changed over the past 20 years. Today, more young adults use several different substances, as opposed to just marijuana or alcohol.  And abusing multiple substances is often more dangerous than abusing a single substance.  

Effective interventions

“Interventions that focus solely on one substance will be less effective than interventions that take a more holistic polysubstance use perspective,” McCabe said.   

“The finding that abstinence is increasing among college students and young adults not in college is very important for U.S. colleges and universities to take into account moving forward,” he said. “These findings reinforce the importance of the need to support those young adults in recovery and abstinence for other reasons.” 


Study:Trends in Alcohol and Marijuana Abstinence, Co-Use, and Use Disorders among US Young Adults by College Status: 2002-2018
Authors: Sean Esteban McCabe and Ty Schepis
Published in: JAMA Pediatrics
Publication date: October 12, 2020
DOI: https://doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.3352
Photo: by Kirill Averianov via Pixabay 

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