Story Highlights• Underage drinking down, but level of prescription drug abuse still same
• Abuse of OxyContin, Vicodin, over-counter cold medicine fairly high
• Crack cocaine use down 50 percent since late 1990s
• Most popular illegal drug continues to be marijuana
From Terry Frieden
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Slightly fewer adolescents abused illegal drugs and alcohol in 2006, but fairly high numbers of them continued to abuse prescription narcotics, according to a new study.
Researchers found reasons to be encouraged, but also concerned. The government-funded study, conducted by the University of Michigan, found that a high number of teens are taking over-the-counter cold medicine to get high. Measured for the first time, teenagers' abuse of such medicine is widespread, the survey said.
But officials characterized the overall survey results as generally positive, saying they reflect a slow decade-long decline in the percentage of teenagers who have experimented with illegal drugs.
The study backed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that 21 percent of eighth-graders, 36 percent of 10th-graders and 48 percent of 12th-graders acknowledged that they had at some point tried at least one illicit drug. Those figures represent declines of 0.5 percent, 2.1 percent and 2.2 percent from the previous year, respectively. (Watch how teenagers pop legal pills to get high)
Underage drinking also down
The number of students who had tried an illicit drug in the past year also declined from peak levels in the mid-1990s, the study said.
Underage drinking continued to decline as well. About 6 percent of eighth-graders, 19 percent of 10th-graders and 30 percent of 12th-graders said they had been drunk at least once in the past 30 days. The numbers are down significantly from a decade ago.
Officials said the new numbers suggest the decline in alcohol use may be over in the younger grades but continuing in higher grades.
The closely watched annual survey of eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-grade students nationwide will be formally unveiled at a press conference Thursday by the White House Drug Policy Chief John Walters, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other senior government officials. (Look at the trends )
Pot still drug-of-choice for teens
By far the most popular illegal drug continues to be marijuana.
For the fifth year in a row, the percentage of 10th- and 12th-grade students using marijuana declined, but there was no corresponding decline in the percentage of eighth-graders who experimented with pot.
"The eighth-graders generally were the first to show the declines [over the past decade] but their improvements now seem near an end," said Lloyd Johnston, the lead investigator for the University of Michigan, which conducts the study.
The use of methamphetamine declined significantly among 10th-graders this year, but not among eighth-graders or 12th-graders, the study found. Meth use is now about 1.8 percent for eighth- and 10th-graders, and 2.5 percent for 12th-graders.
Crack abuse down up to 50 percent since late '90s
Crack cocaine use continued to drop with use ranging from 1.3 percent to 2.1 percent, marking a decline of up to 50 percent since teen crack use peaked in the late '90s.
Use of anabolic steroids also dropped last year, which officials said may be attributable to the negative publicity associated with steroid use by professional baseball players.
The scientific survey of 50,000 students in 400 schools nationwide marks the 32nd consecutive year the "Monitoring the Future" study has been done. Anti-drug officials and academicians agree the study has become the key barometer in providing a window on trends of drug use among teenagers at critical decision-making stages of development.
Use of inhalants, LSD and other hallucinogens showed virtually no change in the past year, along with heroin, tranquilizers, sedatives and club drugs such as Ketamine and Rohypnol.
Of some concern to the researchers was a slight increase in the use of ecstasy, and the continued relatively high use of OxyContin and Vicodin.
OxyContin use by 12th-graders, which peaked in 2005 at 5.5 percent, dropped back to 4.3 percent, but the greatest levels to date were observed among eighth-graders (2.6 percent) and 10th-graders (3.8 percent).
"Obviously relatively few young people are using OxyContin; still, given the addictive potential of this strong narcotic drug, I think we should be concerned about these rates," Johnston said in a prepared statement.
Use of the painkiller Vicodin showed even higher rates. Use this year hit 3 percent for eighth-graders, 7 percent for 10th-graders, and 9.7 percent for 12th-graders.
The abuse of cough and cold medicines called DXM, Dex, and Skittles by teens had attracted 4 percent of eighth-graders, 5 percent of 10th-graders and 7 percent of 12th-graders.