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Ontario youth use fewer drugs but continue to binge drink

section identifier imagethe front cover of a crosscurrents magazine- the main image is a vase with bold coloured flowers


By Nate Hendley

Spring 2004, Vol 7 No 3


Students are using less tobacco and ecstasy, but are still binge drinking on a regular basis, according to the 2003 Ontario Student Drug Use Survey (OSDUS). Released in November, the OSDUS offers further proof of the need to provide students with harm reduction tips, say health promoters. The longest-running survey of its kind in Canada, the OSDUS has been conducted every two years since 1977. For the most recent study, 6,616 students in grades 7 to 12 from 126 different schools across Ontario were given questionnaires about their alcohol, tobacco and drug use. Past-year alcohol use was reported by 66 per cent of students, while 30 per cent reported past-year marijuana use and 19 per cent reported smoking cigarettes. Of particular concern is the fact that 27 per cent of students admitted to binge drinking (defined as consuming five or more alcoholic beverages on one occasion). “Alcohol remains the most widely used drug across all grades and the perceived risk associated with binge drinking is low,” notes Edward Adlaf, senior scientist at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, and co-author of the study.

Daily use of tobacco has decreased significantly, from 22 per cent in 2001 to 14 per cent in 2003. Ecstasy use also declined, from 6 per cent in 2001 to 4 per cent in 2003. Perceived risk and concerns about health were cited as key reasons for these declines. Hard-drug use remains low, with 3 per cent of students reporting methamphetamine use, 3 per cent reporting crack cocaine use and 1 per cent reporting heroin use. The survey found illicit drug consumption to be highest among 11th and 12th graders, at approximately 48 per cent. Students from Toronto were the least likely to take drugs, while students from northern Ontario were the most likely. Gender differences were noted as well, with males more likely than females to drink alcohol and binge drink, and to take LSD, PCP, tranquilizers, Heroin or Ketamine.

Interestingly, the OSDUS revealed that 68 per cent of students had not used any illicit drugs, including marijuana, in the past year. Thirty per cent had not used any substance, including tobacco or alcohol.Those who work with students on drug and alcohol issues say it is unrealistic to advocate zero tolerance as the only acceptable norm for young people. “I don’t think we’ll ever achieve total abstinence,” says Margeree Edwards, provincial co-ordinator of the Ontario Drug Awareness Partnership (ODAP). Funded by the Ontario Ministry of Health, the Peterborough, Ontario–based ODAP presides over dozens of community-based drug awareness committees across the province. It organizes an annual Drug Awareness Week for Ontario youth and a yearly symposium with its partners, and also encourages the development of innovative educational programs.

Patricia Hajdu, health promotion planner for the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, serves as chair of the Drug Awareness Committee in Thunder Bay, Ontario, which is one of ODAP’s partners. Hajdu’s organization put on two “Safe Party” workshops last year, in which older students imparted harm-reduction messages to grade 7–9 students. The workshops examined such subjects as alcohol poisoning, alcohol and pregnancy, peer pressure and the effects of various substances. Hajdu has applied for a federal grant to start a peer-mentoring program that would pair up students to discuss topics ranging from sexuality to substance abuse. As Edwards notes, “parents aren’t always the best person to teach a young person about alcohol and drugs.” Under the mentoring program, students and teachers in various grades would be asked to fill in a survey identifying “peer helpers” in their midst. Hajdu defines the latter as “peers and/or teachers that students naturally turn to when they need support on a variety of issues.” These peer helpers will then be invited to attend a weekend retreat, where they will be trained in various skills such as listening and trust-promotion. The peer helpers would not become counsellors per se, but would “have the skills they need to be able to refer kids to other people in the community, who can help with drug and alcohol issues,” says Hajdu. In keeping with ODAP’s philosophy, the emphasis in the peer-mentoring program is on reducing harm, not completely eliminating student alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug use. “Education for youth around alcohol and substance use is increasingly becoming more harm-reduction oriented,” says Hajdu. “We know kids will try this stuff. It’s a matter of making sure they are aware of the risks and how to minimize those risks.” 

To learn more about this project, read the full OSDUS report.