Coalition makes progress, but foresees change

But shifts in perception could undermine work
Pam Monson

    Although it’s made progress in keeping alcohol and tobacco out of the hands of teens, changing perceptions are undercutting the Wilmington Coalition for a Healthy Community’s message about harm, and indicators say change could be coming.
    The Drug Free Communities Support Program compared the results of previous Illinois Youth Surveys (IYS) with the results of the spring 2016 survey to gauge whether its federal grant funded anti-tobacco and anti-alcohol initiatives have been successful. The IYS is a self-report survey that gathers information about health and social indicators such as bullying, depression, smoking, drinking and drug use.
    The Coalition uses the survey data to support its Drug Free Communities grant application, which was awarded for programs focused on curbing teen tobacco and alcohol use.
    Coalition program coordinator Deb Tomey said comparison between years is not definitive, because the group did not have information about the number of students who participated in the survey in earlier years, or other demographic information. In addition, survey questions change over the years to reflect current trends, such as the emergence of e-cigarettes, which makes comparison within topics difficult.
    In 2010, 54.7 percent of the Wilmington High School students surveyed had not used alcohol within the previous 30 days. That rose to 60.8 percent by 2016. The students’ perception of parental and peer disapproval also increased, each around 3 percent points, although the students’ perception of risk inched up by just over one-half a percentage point between 2012 and 2016.
    Not many more middle school students changed their perception of parental disapproval between 2014 and 2016, but the perception of peer disapproval rose from 83.5 percent to 88.2 percent. More significantly, 92.1 percent of the students surveyed indicated they had not used alcohol within the previous 30 days in 2016, compared to just 79 percent in 2010. The students’ perception of risk also increased. Just 75.7 percent considered consuming alcohol to be risky in 2012, that climbed to 80.3 percent in 2016.
    “The numbers for alcohol are definitely going in the right direction,” Tomey said.
    In 2010, just over 75 percent of high school students reported they had not used tobacco products in the previous 30 days. That number rose to 88.1 percent last year. Their perceptions of disapproval by their parents and peers also increased.  Tomey said that with the Coalition working in the middle school and St. Rose School these numbers should continue to climb.
    However, the high school students’ perception of risk dropped significantly, from 93 percent in 2010 to 83.2 percent in 2016.
    “The students aren’t seeing it as a risk. We have to dig deeper into this, we want to know why the [other] numbers are going up and students are choosing not to smoke, and yet they don’t think it’s a great risk to smoke,” Tomey said.
    E-cigarettes might account for some of the anomaly. 2016 is the first year the survey questioned students about e-cigs and hookas. The Will County Health Department has reported that teens don’t view e-cigarettes in the same light as cigarettes.
    In 2010, 94 percent of middle school students reported they hadn’t used tobacco in the previous 30 days. In 2016 that number had risen to 97.4 percent.
    “That’s almost 100 percent, and that’s just awesome,” Tomey commented. One hundred percent of the middle school group believed their parents would disapprove of their tobacco use, compared to 97 percent in 2010. The perception of peer disapproval increased 2.1 percent to 89.5 percent.
    In the middle school as in the high school though, students’ perception of risk fell, from 95 percent in 2010 to 89.5 percent in 2016.
    “Perception of risk is considered a leading indicator, in that when perception of risk starts going down, it generally comes before use goes back up,” said Anita Young, the Coalition secretary. “It kind of stands to reason, it makes sense. So we’ll be watching for that.”
    Nearly 91 percent of high school respondents to the 2016 survey said they hadn’t used marijuana in the previous 30 days, compared to 79.3 percent in 2010. However, the students perceive less parental and peer disapproval of marijuana use, and their perception of risk is inching downward.
    “We were expecting to see this with marijuana becoming legal for medical use, and trying to get laws passed saying that it’s legal,” Tomey said. “We need to keep an eye on this. We may see our past 30-day non-use go up, so it’s really important to continue education about the harmful effects of marijuana smoking.”
    The 2016 survey indicated that 98.7 percent of the middle school-aged respondents had not used marijuana in the previous 30 days, up from 91 percent in 2010. Middle schoolers’ perception of peer and parental disapproval also rose, by 2.5 percent and 3.7 percent respectively, but their perception of risk fell dramatically, from 91.5 percent in 2012 to 81.6 percent in 2016.

Prescription drugs
    The number of high school students reporting non-use of prescription medications in the 30 days before the survey decreased by less than 1 percent between 2014 and 2016, and there was no change in the group’s perception of parental disapproval. But the students perceived less disapproval from their peers in 2016 compared to 2014, and their perception of risk fell 8.4 percentage points, from 94.4 percent in 2014 to 86 percent in 2016.
    The Coalition expected this outcome as well.
    “We need to dig deeper to find out why they’re not seeing it as risky,” Tomey noted.
    Less than one percentage point separated 2014 and 2016 middle school responses when it came to non-use of prescription medications, at 98.3 percent and 97.4 percent respectively, and there was almost no change in the students’ perception of parental and peer disapproval between those years. The middle schoolers perception of risk for the use of prescription medications rose a bit, from 90.3 percent in 2014 to 92.1 percent in 2016.
    Tomey is hoping that with heroin abuse awareness curriculum in eighth and ninth grade and with Lions Quest and its section on prevention being taught in the elementary grades, those numbers will continue to climb. It’s important to make that happen, as already this year in the state of Illinois heroin overdose deaths have surpassed traffic fatalities. The state has recorded more than 1,000 opioid overdose deaths so far this year, Tomey said, compared to 452 traffic fatalities to date.
    Overall, the comparison indicates some positive results have come from the Coalition’s work and the community’s support.
    “I think everybody in the community, from 2010 has been doing a great job protecting the health of the kids,” Tomey said.
    An evaluator will review the findings to obtain a “deeper picture” of the comparison, she noted.