The COVID-19 Pandemic has Increased Nicotine Use and Prescription Drug Abuse in Adolescents

A study finds that during the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol use has actually decreased among adolescents age 10 to 14, however, the use of nicotine and the misuse of prescription drugs has increased. The findings appeared in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The results derived from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, which is the largest US study ever conducted related to long-term adolescent brain development and health. The study is following almost 12,000 children over the duration of at least 10 years, beginning at ages 9 to 10. The study aims to track the population’s biological and behavioral changes into young adulthood.

In this particular survey study, researchers assessed 7,842 adolescents and their families at 21 US sites for the first six months during stay-at-home orders in response to the spread of COVID. Participants were asked to describe their substance use, which included alcohol, tobacco and un-prescribed drug use. The survey also analyzed the population’s worry about COVID and measured it against related stressors, such as educational challenges, family issues, and job loss.

Results Highlight a Public Health Concern

The results showed that substance use among adolescents was stable during the first six months of the pandemic, and the use of alcohol declined compared to pre-pandemic levels. However, the researchers observed an augmented use of nicotine and misuse of prescription drugs. They postulate this is because the latter are easier to hide from their families during quarantine.

Moreover, the study found that substance abuse was higher in families that experienced financial and/or material hardship during the pandemic. Overall, the results indicate that amplified stress, depression and anxiety were all markedly linked with youth substance abuse.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has produced sustained disruptions to several domains of adolescents’ lives, including alcohol and drug use,” said first author William Pelham III, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in the Center for Human Development at UC San Diego via a press release about the analysis. “Thus, surveillance of adolescent substance use is an important public health priority.”

“Taken together, these findings underscore the disproportionate burden of the pandemic on youth and families with pre-existing disadvantages,” said Pelham. “Providing material support to distressed families and linking emotionally distressed youth to support may serve as important risk-mitigation strategies, both today and during similar events in the future.”


Dr. Pelham added that: “Continued surveillance of adolescents’ alcohol and drug use as many adolescents return to their pre-pandemic routines will comprise an important public health priority and goal of the ABCD Study.”