News | Kids’ Edition: A new state report documents pill-popping teens and sixth-graders visiting casinos 

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Wondering what the kids are up to nowadays? Well, they’re not just playing hackey-sack and smoking cigarettes behind the high school gym. A new Utah study reports the latest trends in adolescent drug use—from the classic fare of marijuana and alcohol to first-ever figures for methamphetamine use, prescription drugs, steroids and even underage gambling.

While the numbers for drug abuse in Utah fall below the national average, experts still worry about Utah’s pitiful lack of funding for adolescent substance-abuse treatment.

The Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP, online at dsamh.utah.gov) is released every two years by the Utah Division of Substance Abuse & Mental Health, but 2007’s report of adolescent substance abuse in grades six, eight, 10 and 12 is the first to follow new fronts in the War on Drugs.

While occasional meth use by Utah students is small (0.1 percent for grade six and 0.3 percent for grades eight, 10 and 12), the recent growth of the drug explains its inclusion in the 2007 SHARP.

“There’s been a lot of attention across the nation about the devastating effects [meth] has,” says Craig PoVey, spokesman for the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. “We wanted to pinpoint where that was happening to help employ prevention strategies.”

The report also documents gambling for the first time. While unusual for a substance-abuse report to document behavior rather than a substance, PoVey says the links between gambling and other forms of abuse are significant. “The numbers are staggering for kids who gamble and also take part in other destructive behaviors.”

The 2007 statistics indicate that gambling peaked in grade eight, with 49 percent of students gambling in some form. Probably most shocking is that 5.8 percent of sixth graders gambled in a casino in 2007. “It’s kind of crazy,” PoVey says. “I hear it’s mostly little buggers running into a casino and throwing a quarter into a slot machine—a Scout leader said he saw a kid win $80 that way.”

Student gambling seems more commonplace because of social acceptance.

Social acceptance is also the reason for underage drinking still topping the list for most frequent and dangerous student substance abuse.

“Alcohol rises to the top,” PoVey says. “It costs the most to society and claims more lives than all other drugs combined.”

While the report shows an overall decrease in underage drinking (except for grade 10) the improvement isn’t substantial over years past. Figures for occasional alcohol consumption (considered the most accurate indicator of abuse) showed an average improvement of approximately half a percentage point compared to 2005 numbers.

Underage drinking has been the focus of recent statewide prevention campaigns, garnering more than $3 million in legislative funding. Some treatment experts see the greater challenge not in emphasizing prevention of underage drinking but in a lack of treatment programs for adolescents.

“There’s been a general increase lately for adult treatment funding, but adolescent treatment is extraordinarily underfunded,” says Glen Lambert, director of the Odyssey House, a Salt Lake City drug treatment center.

“In Salt Lake County, there are only eight available beds for publicly funded treatment,” Lambert says.

PoVey agrees, and hopes the report will act as a wakeup call for the Legislature to approve increased funding for adolescent treatment as was recommended in Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s budget.

Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, is the only lawmaker pushing a treatment bill specific to juveniles in the upcoming session. His proposal would make drug treatment mandatory for pregnant teenagers. “Prisons are full of inmates with brain damage they got from their teenage moms partying it up on a Friday night while they were pregnant,” Hutchings says, adding “I’m not trying to punish struggling kids, but I draw a line when a teenage mother endangers the life of her child by binge drinking.”

In the meantime, with numerous drugs plaguing Utah students, PoVey believes a broad approach to combating underage vice will be the route of state prevention gurus. “We have to take a comprehensive approach and give kids the skills to recognize what’s harmful. Whether it’s alcohol, meth or beating themselves on the head with a 2-by-4—if it’s unhealthy, they gotta stop.”

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