Facts and Statistics of the Top 4 Substances Abused by Teens

Today marks the 13th anniversary of National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week, an observance launched by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2010. The purpose of this event is to inspire dialogue with youth about the science of drug use and addiction. Although it may seem difficult to start a conversation on this topic, we have compiled a list of facts and statistics on the top 4 substances abused by young people that you can use to kick-off a conversation with someone you may know.

Tobacco & Vaping

Most long-term tobacco users begin using tobacco products during youth and young adulthood. As of 2022, the CDC has found that in American high schools 1.6% of students use smokeless tobacco, 2.0% use cigarettes, 2.8% use cigars, and 14.1% use e-cigarettes. Use of any of the products, including e-cigarettes, is unsafe. Use of smokeless tobacco, such as dips and pouches, increases the risk of oral and esophageal cancer, gum disease, and tooth decay. Cigar and cigarette use increase the risk of lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, and emphysema. And, although most consider it safer, not enough research has been done on vaping to establish risks of long-term use. All these products contain nicotine, which is extremely addictive and harms the developing brain. It can also increase future use of, and addiction to, other drugs.
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Although underage drinking is extremely common in the United States, it can pose serious risk. A 2019 study by the CDC concluded that among high schoolers, in one month 29% drank alcohol, 14% binge drank, 5% drove after drinking, and 17% rode with a driver who had been drinking. Underage drinkers are more likely to experience disruption of normal growth/development, memory problems, misuse of other substances, alcohol poisoning, and changes in brain development that can have life-long effects. Underage drinking is also related to adult drinking, with those having drank in their youth continuing to drink excessively into adulthood and that children of binge drinkers are also more likely to drink in adolescents than those whose parents don’t drink.
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Although experimenting and taking risks in our youth can help foster independence and identity development, some risks that teens may take have the potential to have adverse effects on health and well-being. A 2019 study by the CDC found that 37% of high school students reported long-term use of marijuana and 22% reported use in the past month. Since the adolescent brain continues to develop until around age 25, use of marijuana can have negative effects on the developing brain, such as difficulty thinking/problem-solving, memory/learning problems, reduced coordination, reduced attention span, and increase risk of mental health issues.
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Prescription & OTC Drugs

Although often seen as “safer” than illegal substances, prescription and over-the-counter drugs are a faster growing drug problem than anything that can be found on the streets. The 3 main categories of prescription/OTCs are stimulants, opioids, and depressants with each posing different threats to the developing adolescent. Stimulants, like cocaine, may cause paranoia, irregular heartbeat, and dangerously high body temperatures. Opioids, like heroin, cause drowsiness, nausea, constipation, and can have dangerous effects on breathing and heartrate. Depressants can cause slurred speech, shallow breathing, fatigue, and possibly seizures upon withdrawal. Abuse of any of these drugs can fracture developing neural pathways and, since brains are becoming hardwired in adolescence, the pathways we support, like addiction, are the ones that stay around in adulthood.
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