Smoking, binge drinking down among North Dakota high schoolers, but suicide results concerning


BISMARCK – North Dakota high schoolers are smoking, binge drinking and abusing prescription drugs at lower rates than before, but the percentage of students using e-cigarettes and attempting or contemplating suicide is alarming, officials said Monday in releasing new survey results.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said the results of the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey are “very positive” overall.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention administers the voluntary survey to students in grades 7-12 every two years in all 50 states.

About 10,300 of North Dakota’s roughly 32,000 high school students in grades 9-12 took the survey last February.

Eighty percent said they did not use cigarettes, cigars or smokeless tobacco, up from 74 percent two years ago – though 22.3 percent reported trying an e-cigarette in the month prior, the first time that question was asked since North Dakota began participating in the survey in 1995.

The percentage of students who reported binge drinking – defined as having at least five drinks in one sitting in the month before the survey – dropped from 22 percent to 18 percent. Marijuana use also fell by 1 percent and prescription drug abuse by 3 percent compared with the 2013 survey.

But students’ answers to questions about their emotions and suicide continue to raise red flags.

Twenty-seven percent reported feeling sad or hopeless almost daily for two or more weeks in the past year, up from 25 percent in 2013 and 20 percent in 2005.The percentage who attempted suicide at least once in the past year dropped from 12 percent to 9 percent, but the percentages who had planned or seriously considered a suicide attempt held steady at 14 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

“That’s something that’s alarming to us,” said Gail Schauer, assistant director of the safe and healthy schools unit at the Department of Public Instruction.

Baesler said the department still must dig into the data to try to understand why more kids are thinking about suicide. She noted that more students have experienced traumatic events in their lives and are dealing with things such as cyberbullying and “sexting” that didn’t exist years ago.

“The list of things to worry about as a parent grows longer,” she said.

As approved by state lawmakers this year, the department is preparing mandatory training for high school and middle school teachers and administrators on how to spot suicide risks.

“We need to work to change those numbers,” Baesler said.

Jeanne Prom, director of the North Dakota Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control Policy, said the drop in tobacco use – 12 percent reported smoking in the month before the survey, down from 19 percent in 2013 – marks “a significant achievement” and shows that statewide prevention programs funded with tobacco settlement dollars approved by state voters in 2008 are working.

But the fact that more than 22 percent of students reported using e-cigs is alarming because using nicotine at a young age can cause lasting harm to the brain and lead to addiction to other forms of nicotine, she said.

“What we’re actually seeing is that the e-cig use does not replace other use. It’s just dual use along with cigarettes. It may even lead to cigarette use,” she said, citing a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found 14-year-olds who used e-cigs were more likely to try traditional tobacco products.

Prom said the good news is the Legislature last spring outlawed e-cig sales to minors, required child-resistant packaging and banned self-service displays, though she noted lawmakers rejected bills to tax e-cigs and raise tobacco taxes for the first time since 1993.