Research of Note for July-August 2006

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Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance — United States, 2005
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Available online at  

Fewer high schoolers are engaging in health-risk behaviors than their counterparts from the early 1990s, according to the 2005 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS).

The CDC’s biannual examination of the behaviors of nearly 14,000 students nationwide in grades nine through 12 monitors six categories: behaviors that contribute to unintentional injuries and violence; tobacco use; alcohol and other drug use; sexual behaviors that contribute to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases; unhealthy dietary behaviors; and physical inactivity. The survey also monitors general health status and the prevalence of obesity and asthma.

“We’re very encouraged about the progress we’ve made during the past 15 years in decreasing the prevalence of health-risk behaviors,” said Nancy D. Brener, surveillance research team leader for the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health.

“The most encouraging news from the 2005 YRBS has been the overall improvements over time in risk behaviors related to sexual activity, injuries and violence, and tobacco and alcohol use,” Brener said.

Sexual Behaviors

Nearly 47 percent of the surveyed youth reported having had sexual intercourse during their lifetimes, and 34 percent had had sexual intercourse with at least one person in the three months preceding the survey (defined as “currently sexually active”). Among currently sexually active youth, 63 percent said that either they or their partners had used a condom during last sexual intercourse, and 18 percent said they or their partners had used birth control pills. Nearly nine in 10 youth said they had been taught in school about acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) or HIV infection.

From 1991 to 2005, there were decreases in the percentages of youth who had ever had sexual intercourse (54 percent to 47 percent) and who were currently sexually active (38 percent to 34 percent). The percentage of sexually active students who had used a condom at last sexual intercourse increased significantly, from 46 percent to 63 percent. But while the percentage of youth who were taught in school about AIDS or HIV infection increased from 83 percent in 1991 to 92 percent in 1997, that percentage decreased to 88 percent by 2005.

Behaviors Leading to Unintentional Injuries and Violence

Only one in 10 youths reported having rarely or never worn a seat belt when riding in a car driven by someone else, down from 26 percent in 1991. Likewise, the percentage of youth who had ridden at least once in the past month in a vehicle driven by someone who had been drinking alcohol also decreased significantly, from 40 percent in 1991 to 29 percent in 2005. The percentage of students who had driven after drinking alcohol decreased from 17 percent in 1997 to 10 percent in 2005.

Nationally, slightly more than 18 percent of youth reported they had carried a gun, knife or club (“weapon”) on at least one day during the month preceding the survey. Nearly 7 percent had carried a weapon on school grounds, and almost 8 percent said they had been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property one or more times. Thirty-six percent said they had been in at least one physical fight in the previous 12 months. Six percent said they had missed school on at least one of the 30 days preceding the survey because they felt they would be unsafe at, or traveling to or from, school.

In the 12 months preceding the survey, slightly more than 9 percent of the youth had experienced dating violence – being hit, slapped or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriends or girlfriends. Nearly 8 percent of students said they had ever been physically forced to have sexual intercourse when they did not want to. (See “Report Roundup,” page 23.)

Alcohol and Tobacco Use

“We had previously seen some increase in current cigarette use and in current alcohol use, but lately, we’ve been seeing decreases in those behaviors,” Brener said.

Fifty-four percent of the youths had ever tried smoking cigarettes, and 23 percent had smoked at least once in the month preceding the survey. The percentage of youth who reported current frequent cigarette use – defined as having smoked cigarettes on 20 of the 30 days preceding the survey – decreased from 17 percent in 1999 to 9 percent in 2005.

Nearly three-quarters of the youths reported having had at least one drink of alcohol during their lifetimes, and 43 percent had had a drink in the month preceding the survey. Slightly more than one-quarter reported having drunk five or more drinks in a row within a couple of hours in the previous month. The percentage who reported current alcohol use hovered at around 50 percent from 1991 to 1999, and then decreased to 43 percent in 2005.

Racial and Ethnic Differences

Over the years, Brener says, the YRBS has consistently found disparities in risk behaviors by race and ethnicity, and the latest study continues that trend.

For example, she said, while African-American students are least likely to report using substances such as tobacco, alcohol, cocaine and other drugs, they are most likely to report sexual risk behaviors and sedentary behaviors.

White students on the other hand, are least likely to report sexual risk behaviors, sedentary behaviors and being overweight, but most likely to report frequent cigarette and smokeless tobacco use and episodic heavy drinking. And Hispanic students are disproportionately at risk for attempted suicide, as well as the use of several drugs, including cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and ecstasy.

“There’s no clear explanation as to why these behaviors vary as they do from subgroup to subgroup,” Brener said. “Most likely, it’s caused by a number of complex issues that interact. … Differences in health-risk behaviors might reflect peer norms, media influences, availability of intervention programs, adult practices that are observed.”