For the first time since first conducted in 1975, a government-sponsored survey is showing that fewer than half of high school seniors admit to having used illegal drugs.

The proportion of 1990 high school seniors who acknowledged ever having used an illegal drug dropped to 47.9 percent, down three percentage points from the Class of 1989, the survey found.Bush administration officials credited public anti-drug campaigns for the decline but said still more work is needed to further reduce drug use.

"We're not declaring victory in that we're not saying the war is over," Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan said Thursday. "Things are going in a positive direction. Now we are seeing a decline (in drug use), but clearly we still have a major problem."

He also expressed dismay at a slight increase in cigarette use reported by young people. The proportion of daily smokers increased slightly, from 18.9 percent to 19.1 percent, Sullivan said. That ratio has varied only minutely over the past decade.

He also expressed concern about the number of students who drink alcohol.

Though fewer of the 1990 seniors said they had taken a drink in the past year or in the previous month, compared with 1989 graduates, binge drinking did not change much, according to the survey.

Acknowledged drug use among high school graduates last year was the lowest level since the survey began 16 years ago and the first drop below 50 percent. The level was highest in 1981, at 65.6 percent.

The survey, conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research under contract for the government's National Institute on Drug Abuse, also showed a steadily increasing proportion of students disapprove of drug use.

More than two-thirds of the 1990 seniors disapproved of trying marijuana, up three points from the previous senior class. In 1977, by contrast, just one-third disapproved.

More than 91 percent of last year's seniors disapproved of trying cocaine, as opposed to about 75 percent in 1977.

"We think this is a clear result of education efforts," Sullivan said. Anti-drug messages are "convincing students that drugs are not a rite of passage but a road to disaster."

"No longer do these drugs carry the lure they once did," said Lloyd D. Johnston, a University of Michigan social scientist who was principal survey investigator. "They've become less glamorous and less romanticized."

The survey polled 15,200 high school seniors in 137 public and private schools nationwide. Researchers also conducted a follow-up study of previously participating graduating classes. In that case, about 1,200 college students and about 6,600 high school graduates who are one to 10 years past high school were re-surveyed by mail.

Critics point out that the survey polls only seniors and graduates, and misses the 15 percent to 20 percent of young people who drop out of high school. Experts believe those dropouts are much more likely to use drugs.


(Additional information)

Drug documentary

A yearlong campaign to discourage adolescents from using drugs and alcohol will begin at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 28, with a television documentary titled "Win Against Drugs." It will be aired on KUTV-Channel 2.

Sponsors are the television station, the Western Institute and Wendy's Old-Fashioned Hamburger Restaurants. The documentary features teenagers discussing the realities of peer pressure and substance availability. NBA basketball players Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Isaiah Thomas also participate.

The campaign will continue with distribution of a free book titled "Family Addictions" and a lesson plan for teachers or others working to prevent teenage drug abuse. Copies of the documentary (VHS only) and the educational materials will be available by calling 584-UWIN.