Page last updated: March 31, 2016
Monitoring The Future National Survey Results on Drug Use 1975-2015

Monitoring the Future project has published a new volume, a 636 page monograph covering the 1975- 2015 national trends in smoking, drinking, and illicit drug use among American secondary school students. It provides an in-depth analysis, covering subgroup differences, attitudes and beliefs about use.

The report highlights that after 1980, when illicit drug use was declining, ‘the monthly prevalence of alcohol use among 12th graders also declined gradually, but substantially, from 72% in 1980 to 51% in 1992. Daily alcohol use declined by half over the same interval, from a peak of 6.9% in 1979 to 3.4% in 1992; the prevalence of drinking five or more drinks in a row during the prior two-week interval fell from 41% in 1983 to 28% in 1993—nearly a one-third decline. When illicit drug use rose again in the 1990s, alcohol use (particularly binge drinking) rose some as well— albeit not as sharply as marijuana use. In the late 1990s, as illicit drug use leveled in secondary schools and began a gradual decline, similar trends were observed for alcohol.

Therefore, long-term evidence indicates that alcohol use moves much more in concert with illicit drug use than counter to it. However, in recent years trends in alcohol and marijuana prevalence have begun to diverge somewhat. From 2007 through 2015 alcohol use continued its long term decline, reaching historic lows in the life of the MTF study, including significant declines in binge drinking in 2015 for 10th and 12th grade students. During this time period annual marijuana use has stayed steady or increased some for school-aged students, while it has increased for the older age groups, including a significant increase in 2015 among young adults’.

Trends in alcohol use among college students are quite different than those for 12th graders or noncollege respondents of the same age as the college students. ‘From 1980 to 1993, college students showed considerably less drop-off in monthly prevalence of alcohol use (82% to 70%) than did 12th graders (72% to 51%), and also less decline in occasions of heavy drinking (from 44% to 40%) than either 12th graders (41% to 28%) or their noncollege age-mates (41% to 34%). Because both the noncollege 19- to 22-year-olds and high school students were showing greater declines, the college students stood out as having maintained a high level of episodic heavy (or binge) drinking.

Since 1993, this behavior has not changed a great deal among college students—their level of binge drinking in 2015 was 32%, down modestly from their 1993 (and 2008) level of 40%. The level among noncollege agemates was 24% in 2015 (and 30% in 2012)—down from 34% in 1993. The 12th graders’ level, after increasing to 32% in 1998, dropped to 25% by 2006 where it remained through 2009; it then declined to its lowest level recorded of 17% in 2015. College students continue to stand out as having a relatively high level of binge drinking, though at 32% it is still somewhat below where it was in 1993 and 2008. College-bound 12th graders are consistently less likely than their noncollege-bound counterparts to report occasions of heavy drinking, yet the higher levels of such drinking among college students compared to noncollege peers indicate that these 12th graders catch up to and pass their peers in binge drinking after high school graduation. This differential change after high school is largely attributable to the fact that college students are more likely to leave the parental home and less likely to get married in the four years after high school graduation than their age mates’. An MTF journal article, part of the report, also shows that membership in a fraternity or sorority is associated with a greater than average increase in heavy episodic drinking and marijuana use in college.

‘Since 1980, college students have generally had levels of daily drinking that were slightly lower than their age peers, suggesting that they were more likely to confine their drinking to weekends, when they tend to drink a lot. The prevalence of daily drinking among the noncollege group fell from 8.3% in 1980 to 3.2% in 1994, rose to 5.8% by 2000, and dropped to 2.2% in 2015. Daily drinking by the college group also dropped in approximately the same time period, from 6.5% in 1980 to 3.0% in 1995, then increased to 5.0% in 2002; since then it has declined to 3.1% in 2015. By 2015 the two groups have similar levels of daily drinking, which is a change in a long-standing difference. There are substantial gender differences in the prevalence of having five or more drinks in a row: ‘Among 12th graders, the levels of prevalence in 2015 are 15% for females versus 19% for males. This difference has generally been diminishing since MTF began; in 1975 there was a 23- percentage-point difference, versus a 4-point difference in 2015. The proportions indicating in 2015 that they have been drunk in the prior 30 days are somewhat higher at 20% and 21% for females and males, respectively’.
All text and images © 2003 Alcohol In Moderation.