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 winning at."
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 New York.
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 hard."
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 address.
"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 pills.
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 alone."
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."