WASHINGTON (AP) _ America's teens are smoking less and popping pain pills more. The lure of the family medicine cabinet helped nearly one in 10 high school seniors try out prescription painkillers last year, even as their generation continued turning away, at least slightly, from smoking and many other drugs.
The decline in illicit drug use by teens was modest, but continued a trend, according to the government's annual study of drug use by eighth, 10th and 12th grade students.
And while teen cigarette smoking fell to its lowest level since the survey began, eighth graders showed their first increase since 1996 in smoking in the month before the survey.
The survey of nearly 50,000 teens across the country found that 21.4 percent of eighth graders had used some illicit drug in their life, down from 21.5 percent a year earlier. For 10th graders it was 38.2 percent, down from 39.8 percent and the figure for 12th graders was 50.4 percent, down from 51.1 percent.
Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, called that continuing decline ``quite remarkable news.''
But, she told a briefing where the annual report was made public, abuse of prescription drugs by teens is a growing problem.
Use of the painkiller OxyContin grew from 4 percent to 5.5 percent of high school seniors from 2002 to 2005, she said, and their use of Vicodin has been consistently over 9 percent, clocking in at 9.5 percent in 2005.
Only marijuana topped prescription drugs in teen use, she said, and that has been declining over time. For 2005, 44.8 percent of 12th graders said they had used marijuana at some time in their lives, down 0.9 percentage points from 2004. The total was 34.1 percent for 10th graders, down 1 point. The 16.5 percent among eighth graders was up 0.2 point, ending a steady decline since 1996.
Study director Lloyd Johnston of the University of Michigan, noting that eighth graders had also ended their declines in tobacco use, raised a concern about reduced funding for anti-tobacco messages. The ongoing study is called Monitoring the Future.
``The best news in this year's report is the significant decline in cigarette smoking, not just because that ultimately is the most deadly drug but also because it confirms that drug abuse is best reduced through sensible public health measures rather than criminal penalties, prosecutions and prisons,'' said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
William V. Corr, executive director of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the report ``sounds a clear warning to state and federal elected officials: Our nation's progress in reducing youth smoking is at risk unless they take more aggressive action to prevent kids from smoking and curb tobacco marketing.''
Findings of the survey of 49,347 students in 402 public and private schools across the country found:
_ Some 75.1 percent of seniors have taken alcohol at some time. For 10th graders 63.2 percent have tried a drink and the figure is 41 percent of eighth graders.
_ More than half, 57.5 percent of seniors said they had been drunk at some time, compared to 42.1 percent of 10th graders and 19.5 percent of eighth graders, down 0.5 point.
_ Among seniors 2.6 percent have tried steroids compared to 2 percent in 10th grade and 1.7 percent in eighth grade.
Johnston said steroid use was a problem in the 1990s but has faded with the increasing attention to the problems caused by these drugs.
On the other hand he said an increase in use of inhalants indicates the lessons learned from an anti-inhalant campaign in the 90s are being lost.
Karen Tandy of the Drug Enforcement Administration warned of the increased availability of drugs, though the Internet.
While federal officials stressed the long-term declines in drug use, others saw things differently.
``The survey results expose the abysmal failure that is the War on Drugs,'' said Scarlett Swerdlow, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.