Young, healthy choices, but …

Survey has mixed results in youthful behaviors

May 1, 2012

West Allis - West Allis health officials are pleased that young people appear to be smoking and drinking less, but are dismayed that unprotected sex appears to have increased.

Those were among the findings of the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey the health department administers. The survey of grades eight through 12 had a 73 percent return, so percentages of responses would vary plus or minus 2 percent, health officials said.

Tobacco-free movement

One of the bright spots was a dramatic fall in the number of young smokers. Only 16 percent of respondents were smokers compared with 28 percent in 2004. Students are deemed smokers if they smoked a cigarette one day in the previous month.

The Health Department's You and Me Tobacco Free in the elementary schools might have contributed to the decline, speculated Sally Nusslock, director of community health services. The health department also counsels pregnant women to quit smoking and police are checking stores to make sure they don't sell to minors, she added.

Despite the falloff, the percentage of heavy smokers - those smoking at least 11 cigarettes a day - remained steady at about 14 percent of young smokers.

Authorities might be making headway in keeping cigarettes out of the hands of young people. This year, fewer of them said it was easy to get them than in 2005 (41 percent in 2011 and 55 percent in 2005).

The survey showed that having others buy their cigarettes for them and borrowing cigarettes from friends were the leading ways young smokers get cigarettes.

Fewer drinks, same drug use

Health and school officials seem to be making some progress curbing alcohol use among ages 12 to 17.

Fewer respondents reported having had a drink in the last 30 days - 39 percent in 2011, down from 48 percent in 2004. Binge drinking in the past 30 days fell to 20 percent from 28 percent in 2004. It also might be a little harder to get alcohol, although 53 percent still felt it was easy. Still, that 53 percent is down from 61 percent in 2005.

Marijuana use seems to have remained steady, with 26 percent of respondents saying they had used it in the last 30 days. About 38 percent said they had tried marijuana sometime - down from 44 percent in 2004.

Both responses are far higher than the 8 percent who tried cocaine, 7 percent who tied heroine, 10 percent who reported that they tried Ecstasy, 13 percent who tried inhalants and 7 percent who tried methamphetamines.

Seemingly, high school students don't have to go far for their drugs, the survey indicates.

Some 28 percent of high school respondents reported that someone offered, sold or gave them an illegal drug on school property in past year. That percentage has remained unchanged since 2004. Only half of eighth-grade respondents said they were offered, sold and given an illegal drug at school.

Unsafe sexual direction

What has changed, in the wrong direction, is that unprotected sex. About 29 percent - nearly one in three - said they seldom or never use birth control, way up from 18 percent in 2004.

Four out of 10 respondents in grades eight to 12, said they had engaged in sex. That's about the same as in 2004.

Kurt Wachholz, superintendent of the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District, said the schools have an abstinence-based human growth and development class as an option.

The health department also teaches in the classrooms about sexually transmitted diseases, Nusslock said.

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