Alcohol use down, marijuana use up in youth survey results

— Photo courtesy of MV Youth Task Force

The percentages of Martha’s Vineyard high school students that drink alcohol, engage in high-risk drinking, and smoke cigarettes are down since 2007. However, the percentages of students that smoke marijuana and abuse prescription drugs is up.

Those findings are among the highlights of a 2012 Martha’s Vineyard Youth Risk Behavior Survey released Tuesday by Theresa Manning, the program coordinator for the Dukes County Health Council Youth Task Force (YTF). The survey results and trends in the information compared to other years will be discussed in detail at a meeting today of the YTF coalition. It takes place at 3 pm in the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Library Conference Room.

“On Thursday we will discuss some of the specific indicators and findings in our community such as points of access for substances, perception of harm, specific individual types of drug uses and perceived use of substances by their peers,” Ms. Manning wrote in an email to The Times. “Additionally we will discuss and brainstorm strategies for addressing these aspects.”

The YTF coalition includes diverse representation from Island police departments, town government, tribal government, schools, local business owners, youth, parents, youth service organizations, and the religious community.

The YTF has been collecting data about youth risk behavior for more than 10 years from a variety of sources, according to its website. The first Youth Risk Behavior (YRB) Survey, conducted in 1999, provided data about substance abuse rates and issues for middle-school and high-school aged youth in Martha’s Vineyard public schools. The YRB Survey has been conducted every two years on the Island since 2005.

Middle school and high school students in grades 7-12 participated in the survey, which is voluntary, during their regularly scheduled classes on February 10 and 15 this year. “We feel fortunate to have a school system that is so incredibly cooperative with our requests and efforts that they make time for us,” Ms. Manning noted. “Some communities cannot broker even one survey for their community.”

Out of 350 middle school students enrolled, 303 or 86.6 percent, participated in the anonymous survey. At Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, 524 students out of 717 students enrolled, about 73 percent, took the survey.

2012 highlights

A chart Ms. Manning provided to The Times in advance of the coalition meeting compares Martha’s Vineyard high school substance use in 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2012.

In regard to alcohol use, the percentages of high school students who drink shows a steady decline over the past four years, dropping from 55 percent of those surveyed in 2007 to 42 percent in 2012. The percentage of students whose alcohol consumption levels are considered high-risk dropped from 39 percent in 2007 to 27 percent in 2012.

The percentage of students who smoke cigarettes dropped only slightly, from 13 percent in 2007 to 12 percent in 2012.

Marijuana use, however, is on the rise, increasing from 30 percent of students surveyed in 2007 who reported smoking it within the past month, to 34 percent in 2009 and 2010, and 39 percent in 2012.

The Island students’ 34 percent figure reported in the 2010 YRB Survey compared to 25 percent of high school students statewide, and 20 percent nationwide.

The good news is that middle school students continue to make good choices as a majority, and typically better than state and national figures, Ms. Manning said, which will be detailed at today’s meeting.

Crafting the survey

Although questions on the YRB Survey have remained similar over the years, Ms. Manning said it is “100 percent custom” and reworked as needed. The questions are related to risky behavior and are multiple choice, with some that allow students to select more than one appropriate answer.

“We use certain core questions worded with specific language to allow us to make state and national comparisons,” Ms. Manning said. “However, over the years we have always strived to make our survey very relevant to our community. We have always worked to take standardized questions, such as questions that reference buying alcohol at grocery stores or gas stations, off of the survey so that kids can feel connected to the responses as if they are reflective of the challenges that they encounter. ”

Unfortunately, Ms. Manning said, in trying to incorporate questions suggested by coalition members that reflected emerging trends and concerns, the 2010 survey ballooned to more than 140 questions and the survey return rate took a hit.

“This year we assembled a committee with representation from the YTF and representatives from all of the schools to research questions from other surveys and evaluate the usefulness of the questions on our survey,” she added. “The end result was a streamlined survey with only about 70 questions and they were all focused around the specific information that we had been working on tracking and evaluating.”

Quality control is maintained by providing a small number of repetitive questions throughout the survey that ask for the same information in a different format. If responses for those questions don’t match, a student’s survey is removed from the data. The YRB Surveys are analyzed and compiled into a report by an off-Island agency.

A Drug Free Communities Grant from the Federal Government and a grant from the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services in Massachusetts helped fund the survey, Ms. Manning said.

Getting the message out

Today’s YTF coalition meeting is not intended to be a public information session, Ms. Manning said, although reporters from The Times and Vineyard Gazette were invited to attend. Its purpose, she explained, “…is to share with our coalition the details so we can celebrate their efforts over the past several years positively impacting alcohol use and to work together to determine ways to strengthen the safety net for our kids and to impact the other numbers more favorably.”

In advance of releasing the survey results, the YTF called attention to the upward trend in Island students’ marijuana use in an advertisement published in The Times on November 1. Currently one in three teenagers use marijuana regularly in the Commonwealth, the ad said.

Given those statistics, the YTF asked voters to carefully consider their vote on the November 6 election ballot question on whether to approve the use of medical marijuana in Massachusetts.

“Since decriminalization passed in 2008, Massachusetts has seen a rise in youth marijuana use; rates are 30 percent higher than the national average and rates on Martha’s Vineyard are substantially higher than that,” the ad noted.

“We as a coalition have an essential priority, to reduce teen marijuana use through environmental strategies that decrease access to marijuana and increase perception of harm of the drug.”

Island voters approved the question on Tuesday, 7,687 to 2,701.

If people in the community are interested in more information, Ms. Manning said the YTF would be happy to hold a public meeting to discuss the survey results further and to strategize on how to change them. Contact her at 508-696-5304 or go online to