College-age Americans are staying away from booze compared to their peers 20 years ago, according to a new study. However, the use of marijuana and mixed use of alcohol and marijuana is more common among them today, as is polysubstance abuse.
While we all know that alcohol isn’t good for you, it has been the recreational drug of choice for many around the world since antiquity. But younger people in the USA were moving away from alcohol between 2002 and 2018, a new study reports, even among those not enrolled in college.
But it seems that to be human is to fall to vice, for the same study found that the use of marijuana and alcohol and marijuana together has increased.
High hopes, low drinking
“We’re encouraged by the significant decreases in alcohol use disorder–for both college and noncollege participants,” said lead author Sean Esteban McCabe, director of the Center for the Study of Drugs, Alcohol, Smoking and Health at the University of Michigan School of Nursing. “Alcohol-related consequences are one of the leading causes of mortality and morbidity for young adults.”
“The prevalence of alcohol use disorder in both groups in 2018 was roughly half of what it was in 2002. We are excited to learn about these drops in disordered drinking.”
The percentage of college-enrolled young US adults (aged 18-22) from the US that abstained from drinking alcohol increased from 20% in 2002 to 28% in 2018, while in those not in school this figure rose from 24% to 30%. More excitingly, alcohol abuse — problematic behaviors ranging from binge-drinking to straight-up alcohol addictions — decreased roughly by half in both groups. All in all, very good news from both a public health perspective as well as in regard to these groups’ quality of life.
But that hole in our hearts (and glasses) demanded to be filled — as such, more people are turning to marijuana, to both marijuana and alcohol, or to prescription drugs. While there seems to be less misuse regarding these two than what we’ve seen regarding alcohol in the past, the team cautions that we still need to keep a close eye on the situation and nip any potential issues in the bud.
The study used data from a nationally-representative survey of 182,722 young adults. For the 2015-2018 interval, the team also looked at the link between prescription drug misuse and trends in alcohol and marijuana consumption. However, they say they were particularly surprised by the drop in alcohol consumption and misuse. The findings give us cause for hope “even with increases in marijuana use disorder and co-use of alcohol and marijuana”, according to Ty Schepis, professor of psychology at Texas State, co-author of the study.
“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,” he adds.
Roughly three-quarters of those who reported “disordered use” of both substances during the previous year had also used prescription drugs, some illicitly. The majority of these participants admitted to misusing their prescription drugs.
So on the one hand, people seem to be getting better at managing their alcohol intake, perhaps by employing marijuana as a crutch. On the other hand, more young people seem to be using or misusing several substances at once (not just marijuana or alcohol), which obviously isn’t very healthy or a very good sign that all is well in society.
“For example, from 2015 to 2018, only 2.5% of young adults who abstained from both alcohol and marijuana reported misusing prescription drugs, while 25.1% of co-users misused prescription drugs,” Schepis said. “That is a tenfold difference with potentially dangerous consequences.”
The findings, however, can help inform better strategies aimed at helping people overcome such issues in the future. Current interventions tend to focus on a single substance at a time and are “less effective” at tackling polysubstance abuse, according to McCabe.
“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. There are over 1 million U.S. young adults in recovery and a wide variety of resources are needed to support these individuals.”