Stupid Drug Story of the Week
NBC's Today show discovers huffing.
In the annals of stupid drug reporting, a special commendation must be reserved for NBC's Today show, which on Nov. 19 aired (video) one of the stupidest drug stories in broadcast news. The program, which specializes in terrorizing mothers with sensationalist stories, discovered that today's kids are "huffing" inhalants from hair spray and air duster cans.
Today co-host Meredith Vieira called the huffing of inhalants "a deadly trend among tweens" before handing it off to reporter Jeff Rossen, who claimed that "new numbers show this is now the 'it drug' for young kids." He continues, "This quick high, all the rage among high school kids, is now invading elementary and middle schools. Now more eighth graders abuse household cleaners than marijuana, cocaine, and hallucinogens combined."
The picture Today and Rossen paint of the prevalence of inhalants is enough to convince parents to ship their kids off to a minimum-security prison for their own safety and not release them until they reach the age of 25. But the segment completely overstates their use. The inhalants fact sheet provided by the government's National Institute on Drug Abuse states that "more 8th-graders have tried inhalants than any other illicit drug," which is very different than Rossen's formulation that more eighth graders use inhalants "than marijuana, cocaine, and hallucinogens combined."
The NIDA page cites the research done by the University of Michigan's well-regarded Monitoring the Future survey, which has been querying students about their drug use since 1975. The most recent Monitoring the Future numbers (PDF), which come from 2008, show that 15.7 percent of eighth graders said they'd used inhalants at some point in their life, compared with 14.6 percent for marijuana/hashish, 3.3 percent for hallucinogens, and 3 percent for cocaine.
Those number are enough to horrify any parent, but do they show that inhalants have really become the "it drug" for kids?
If you dial the Monitoring the Future study back to 1991, you find that more eighth graders were reporting that they'd used inhalants at some point in their life (17.6 percent). The lifetime prevalence number rose to 21.6 percent by 1995 but has basically been declining ever since.
The study's 2008 findings also show that more eighth graders reported using marijuana/hash annually (PDF) (10.9 percent) than inhalants (8.9 percent). Similar results are found when you look at 30-day (PDF) prevalence of use in 2008—5.8 percent for marijuana and 4.1 percent for inhalants.
The Today segment hits one of its many low points when its reporter asks a teenaged former user if she thought inhalants—specifically canisters of "air duster"—were "completely harmless." "Yes," she responds. "You don't get arrested for it, you don't go to rehab for it. People just kind of—they don't really think anything of it."
But Monitoring the Future's surveys argue against the notion that most kids think that inhalants are harmless. Since 1991, between 33.9 percent and 45.6 percent of eighth graders surveyed have believed that there was "great risk" (PDF) from doing inhalants once or twice, and between 59.2 percent and 71.6 percent have acknowledged the "great risk" in consuming the compounds regularly. In other words, the eighth graders represented in the Monitoring the Future survey are more savvy about the dangers inherent in inhalants than Meredith Vieira, Jeff Rossen, and the entire NBC team combined.