Young teenagers prenatally exposed to cocaine have increased chances of using any one of a number of substances by the time they reach age 15, according to the results of a study published in January 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. The authors also identified two additional risk factors that increase the likelihood of early teen substance use.
Drug Use by Pregnant Women
Prenatal exposure to drugs occurs when substances in a mother’s bloodstream pass through the placenta and enter the bloodstream of her developing child. Because of the delicate nature of fetal development, this exposure can have results that range in impact from relatively mild (with short-term or light exposure) to extremely severe (with ongoing or heavy exposure). Specific potential outcomes from prenatal exposure to cocaine or other well-known drugs of abuse include impairment of the normal process of growth and development, a dangerously low birth weight and behavioral problems that only become fully apparent years later. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration tracks substance use rates among pregnant women as part of a nationwide yearly project called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Data gathered from this survey indicates that roughly 5.9 percent of pregnant women and girls in the U.S. between the ages of 15 and 44 used some sort of illicit or illegal drug in 2011 and 2012. The highest rate of drug use (18.3 percent) occurred among teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17. The second highest rate of use (9 percent) occurred among teenagers and young women between the ages of 18 and 25. The lowest rate (3.4 percent) occurred among women between the ages of 26 and 44.
Tracking Teen Substance Use Rates
The federal government maintains several ongoing projects designed to track substance use and substance-related harms in U.S. residents as young as age 12. Once every two years, one particular project—called the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey or YRBSS—tracks substance use and several other harmful behaviors among children enrolled in grades nine through 12 at American high schools. Currently, the available results from the last YRBSS (completed in 2011) indicate that almost 71 percent of high school students have consumed alcohol at least once in their lives and nearly 39 percent of high schoolers drink once a month. For marijuana, the lifetime and yearly use rates are 39.9 percent and 23.1 percent, respectively. Lifetime rates of use for other drugs include 20.7 percent for any form of prescription medication, 11.4 percent for any form of inhalant, 6.8 percent for any form of cocaine use and 3.8 percent for methamphetamine use. Except for inhalants, the highest rates of use usually occur among older adolescents.
The Impact of Prenatal Cocaine Exposure
In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from Case Western Reserve University used information gathered from the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey to compare the level of substance use among young teens exposed prenatally to cocaine to the level of substance use among young teens not prenatally exposed to the drug. They supplemented this information with blood, hair or urine samples. All told, the study included 358 preteens and adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15. Of these teens and preteens, 183 had been exposed to cocaine in the womb, while the remaining 175 had not. The researchers concluded that, compared to the participating young teens with no background of prenatal cocaine exposure, the teenagers prenatally exposed to the drug had higher rates of lifetime use for essentially all substances. For example, while only 26 percent of non-exposed teens had smoked cigarettes, 35 percent of exposed teens had smoked. Twenty-three percent of the non-exposed teens involved in the study had used marijuana, while 33 percent of exposed teens had used the drug. Thirty-five percent of non-exposed teens had consumed alcohol, while 40 percent of exposed teens had consumed alcohol. Finally, 50 percent of the non-prenatally exposed participants had used a drug other than marijuana, while 59 percent of the cocaine-exposed participants had used another drug.
The authors of the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence also used data gathered from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey to assess the impact of early-life exposure to lead or a violent environment on a young teen’s chances of drinking or using drugs. They concluded that, together with prenatal cocaine exposure, early lead exposure increases the risks for alcohol consumption. They also concluded that, together with prenatal cocaine exposure, early exposure to violence increases the risks for all forms of substance use except drinking. In these teens, it is especially important for them to participate in addiction treatment.