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When it comes to health, teens seem to be getting the message.
High school students surveyed last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention smoked less, drank less and used seat belts and bike helmets more frequently than their counterparts 12 years earlier, according to an analysis released Thursday.
But even so, many teenagers remain exposed to significant health risks, the CDC reported. In 2003, 2.6 million high school students said they rarely or never wore seat belts, 6.4 million drank alcohol, 3.1 million smoked cigarettes and 2.4 million carried a weapon.
Some trends are moving in the wrong direction, the agency cautioned. Use of cocaine and illegal steroids has increased, numbers of those overweight remain high, and fruit and vegetable consumption has not budged since the agency began keeping track.
"Too many high school students are engaging in behaviors that place them at risk for serious health, educational or social problems," said Jo Anne Grunbaum, a scientist in the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. "Even with the improvements, we still have a ways to go."
The numbers come from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a voluntary, anonymous questionnaire the CDC has administered to high school students every second year since 1991. The most recent version was given last spring to 15,214 ninth- through 12th-grade students in 32 states, including Georgia.
The survey measures risky behaviors in six categories --- injury and violence, tobacco use, alcohol and drug use, sexual behavior, food consumption and physical activity. It also asks whether students believe they are overweight.
The responses are used to gauge whether the country is achieving health goals set every 10 years by the federal government. They also serve as an early predictor of the country's future health, because the patterns of behavior that foster heart disease and cancer --- the two biggest killers in the United States --- often originate in adolescence.
The results of the 2003 survey suggest those behavior patterns can be affected before they become hard-to-break habits. Teens are paying attention, even when they appear not to be, the survey suggests.
"Young adults do listen to health messages, but it has to be the right message," said Susan Butler, a behavioral scientist at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health who has studied tobacco use. She was not involved in the CDC survey.
"What works well with young people and college-age people is messages that speak of immediate risk. Such as: The carbon monoxide in cigarettes displaces oxygen, so they won't have the lung and heart capacity they need to play sports or be active," Butler said.
Tobacco use is an area where high school students have improved since 1991. That year, 70.1 percent of students had tried a cigarette at least once, compared with 58.4 percent last year. There were significant improvements, as well, in risky sexual behavior. In 1991, 54.1 percent of high school students had had sex at least once; that rate dropped to 46.7 percent last year.
Among sexually active students, condom use increased dramatically, from 46.2 percent in 1991 to 63 percent last year. In a troubling footnote, 25.4 percent of teens who had sex had consumed alcohol or drugs immediately beforehand, up from 21.6 percent in 1991.
Teenagers also took steps to protect themselves from accidental injuries, increasing the rates at which they wore seat belts and reducing the number of times they drove after drinking, carried a weapon or got in a fight. However, rising rates of them being overweight and low rates of physical activity might set them up for the development of chronic diseases later in life.
Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution