Every two years, the Vermont Health Department conducts a youth risk behavior survey of students across the state. This year the report uncovered a new public health threat when it found that a majority of high school seniors engage in the risky behavior of texting while driving.
Middle and high school students fill out the survey anonymously and state health officials use the information to identify trends in high risk behavior and to develop public health policies to help reduce the behavior.
This year’s survey shows a drop in alcohol and tobacco use. Two years ago, 15 percent of high school students said they were smokers - that number dropped to 13 percent in 2013. And in 2011, 35 percent of older students reported using alcohol in the past month - this year it fell to 33 percent.
Tracy Dolan is the Vermont’s Deputy Health Commissioner. She says the state faces a new public health crisis and that’s young people who text while they’re driving.
“That was the real shocker. That was hard to read,” said Dolan. “We saw that 59 percent of students in their senior year were driving and texting and those were high numbers.”
Dolan says the state needs to address the issue in a variety of ways in order to get the message across that texting while driving is a very serious health risk.
“This is a relatively new public health threat and so I think we van really learn from what we’ve done with other public health challenges,” said Dolan. “We’ve certainly seen that policy in law change sometimes helps and so we do have a law in Vermont that doesn’t allow for texting and driving. We know repeated messaging in a lot of different ways helps and also with a lot of different audiences.”
Dolan says the survey also shows that 39 percent of high school students have tried marijuana and that 24 percent are current users. At the same time, the number of students who think marijuana use is harmful is declining.
Dolan thinks the Legislature’s decision last year to decriminalize marijuana is a factor in this change of student attitude.
“I think the legal framework in which people live can affect the way they see certain substances,” said Dolan. “I know at the Health Department regardless of the legal status of any drug that can harm you we’re certainly very clear on youth and the importance of youth lowering their risk.”
The survey also shows that the number of overweight and obese students in Vermont has “increased significantly” over the past two years. Twenty-nine percent of all students now fall into these categories.
Dolan says this is a major concern because this condition often leads to the development of a variety of chronic illnesses when the students get older.