Drug Abuse and the Foreign Born

Does American culture encourage drug use? Research has found that foreign-born youths in the United States are less likely to use drugs than their U.S.-born counterparts, but their risk of substance use gets increasingly higher as they spend more time in the states.

Researchers surveyed 51,000 Americans ages 12 to 17, asking which substances, if any, they had used in the past month, including alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana and hard drugs. Foreign-born teens, which represented 7.1 percent of the sample, were less likely to have used drugs if they were newly arrived in the U.S., but over time their rate of use gradually caught up to that of U.S.-born teens. By the time foreign-born youths had been in the U.S. for 10 or more years, their drug use was at the same level as that of teens born in the U.S.

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Exposure to American culture may be behind the gradual rise in drug use, say study authors Joseph Gfroerer and Lucilla Tan of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Rockville, Maryland. The influence of parents, peers, formal education and the media could all affect teens' likelihood to use drugs.

Gfroerer views the pattern of drug use among foreign-born youths optimistically. "Experts who design prevention programs can take this into account," he suggests. "It provides an opportunity to intervene in immigrants before they actually do become drug users."

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