Analysts Hesitant To Link Drug Use To Ethnic Culture A recent study of middle school students in California finds that Latinos are at a greater risk of substance use. That's consistent with some other national research. But some analysts are worried about linking the behavior to ethnic culture.
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Analysts Hesitant To Link Drug Use To Ethnic Culture

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Analysts Hesitant To Link Drug Use To Ethnic Culture

Analysts Hesitant To Link Drug Use To Ethnic Culture

Analysts Hesitant To Link Drug Use To Ethnic Culture

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A recent study of middle school students in California finds that Latinos are at a greater risk of substance use. That's consistent with some other national research. But some analysts are worried about linking the behavior to ethnic culture.

MIKE PESCA, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Mike Pesca.

Latino kids in California middle schools feel more pressure than other ethnic groups to smoke, drink and use drugs in order to fit in. That's according to a study out this month.

But nationwide, as NPR's Brenda Wilson reports, experts are cautious about linking substance use to a specific ethnic group.

BRENDA WILSON: Adolescence, when young people begin to branch out on their own, is when many are likely to try alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. But some kids are more at risk than others.

The RAND Corporation surveyed more than 5,000 seventh and eighth graders in California, and found that Hispanic students were twice as likely as white students to have used alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana.

There was little difference between black and white students and much less of a problem among Asian students.

Regina Shih is the lead author of the study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Ms. REGINA SHIH (RAND Corporation): We asked the Hispanic students and all the other students as well: If you were given alcohol at a party, how able are you to resist or say no to that situation? Hispanics had less ability to resist peer pressure.

WILSON: And she says they also didn't have a strong perception of the negative consequences of drinking and smoking.

Ms. SHIH: If we were to ask a Hispanic student and an Asian student whether they thought cigarettes might make them do more poorly in school, Asians would believe it would make them perform more poorly in school, whereas Hispanics might not believe that to the same extent.

WILSON: Other studies have found that strong family connections often have a protective influence among Hispanics.

Ms. SHIH: But for this sample, it didn't. So we think that these Hispanic students in this sample may be more acculturated to our American culture and therefore be at higher risk for substance use.

WILSON: Because these students are young, Shih says they may not have a strong sense of obligation to the family and tend to think this is what most American kids do.

At the Latino Youth Center in Washington, D.C., Vanessa Hernandez from El Salvador says her Hispanic friends don't drink or smoke any more than friends from other ethnic backgrounds.

Ms. VANESSA HERNANDEZ: Like, I have, you know, African-American friends. I have Asian friends. And I think it all depends on you, whether you choose to do it or not. And if you do, I don't think it has anything to do with being Hispanic. Like, it just seems ridiculous to me.

WILSON: Eighteen-year-old Hernandez is a peer educator with a prevention group at the center called Really Though? As in do you really want to do that? Do you really want to have that drink? She says young Hispanics talk about feeling under pressure to drink and smoke.

Ms. HERNANDEZ: The whole being cool thing came up. Like, they would always refer to that. Like, oh, you know, I just (unintelligible) cool, and like, I want to fit in or whatever.

WILSON: Lloyd Johnston of the University of Michigan has been tracking alcohol, cigarette and drug use among kids for 35 years. He says RAND's survey in California is consistent with national findings, but he's hesitant to draw any conclusions from it. For one thing:

Dr. LLOYD JOHNSTON (Research Professor, University of Michigan): It's hard to know whether acculturation means picking up the habits that are common to American students or learning to resist them.

WILSON: One limit of the study is that it was just done in California, where most Hispanics are Mexican-Americans. And Johnston says that's not representative of Hispanics in the rest of the country.

Dr. JOHNSTON: In our larger studies, we can see that the Mexican Americans have the highest rate of use among Hispanics, that Puerto Ricans, for example, have a lower rate than they do. And those from other Latin American countries, including Cuba, have still lower rates, more like what whites have.

WILSON: Johnston says they don't know why Mexican Americans have a higher rate of substance use. The latest data from Mexico show a rate of drug use lower than in the U.S. There is one possible explanation, he says: the parent's lack of interest in education.

Dr. JOHNSTON: The more education the parents have, the less likely the kids are to report using various drugs. And Hispanic kids have parents that are less educated on average than others.

WILSON: Regina Shih of the RAND Corporation wants more culturally sensitive programs to help Hispanic teens resist peer pressure, but Johnston says the verdict is still out on such measures.

Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

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