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Cleaner Living

 Those who worry about adolescent decadence may find comfort in the 2001 edition of America's Children, an annual statistical report by a consortium of federal agencies. It shows that out of 17 prime indicators of adolescent well-being, seven improved since the last reporting years while none got worse. But as illustrated by the graphs, which display five of the most important indicators, the longer-range picture is mixed.

Substance abuse by the nation's 27 million teenagers appears to be inching down from its extraordinarily high levels of 20 years ago, but it is still excessive from a public health perspective. Of the three million high school seniors enrolled last year, 300,000 used an illegal drug other than marijuana in the month prior to being surveyed; 60,000 of these used cocaine. Almost a million were intoxicated at least once in the month in question; 50,000 got drunk every day. Cigarette smoking in this group is down from its high of 39 percent in 1976 to 31 percent in 2000, but 350,000 consumed half a pack or more every day. In the month before the survey, 100,000 used smokeless tobacco daily, which is causally related to oral and nasal cancer.

Since 1996 an increasing number of children younger than 18 have lived in areas that do not meet one or more of the Environmental Protection Agency's air-quality standards, a particular problem for those with asthma or other respiratory illnesses. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Healthy Eating Index," only 6 percent of those 13 to 18 years old had a "good diet" in 1996, whereas 20 percent had a "poor diet," one so unbalanced that it increases the risk of obesity and certain diseases. About a third of high school seniors do not have basic math and reading skills, and there are few signs that this is improving [see "Can't Read, Can't Count," By the Numbers, October].

Among the more positive developments is the decline in poverty among young people and the shrinking number of high school dropouts. In the 1990s fewer dropouts, combined with more job opportunities, resulted in diminishing numbers of idle teenagers, a trend that may have contributed to the recent fall in crimes involving young people. Another encouraging sign was a growing tendency for high school graduates to get a college degree: Among 25- to 29-year-olds, 33 percent had a college degree in 2000, compared with only 26 percent in 1980.

For more than a generation, the trend of adolescent girls to have children out of wedlock has been a leading indicator of social pathology, and so the modest decline evident in the latter half of the 1990s is good news. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, several developments account for this, including increased contraceptive use and, possibly, greater awareness among teenagers of the value of abstinence.