Teens who are exposed to parents' substance use disorders are more than three times as likely as other teens to have a substance use disorder themselves.
Source: Columbia University
The billboards are dotted around town -- usually a parent and a child, close together. One shows a father and his toddler daughter reading a story. A thick haze surrounds them.
"Adrian smokes two packs a day," the billboard states. "So does her dad."
It's the exact message emanating from Columbia University in New York City, where researchers have determined that the road to teen addiction often begins when children are still young enough to climb into their parents' laps. The majority of alcohol and drug abuse begins right before adulthood, Columbia researchers said, but small children who see their parents smoking, drinking or pill-popping are more likely to give it a whirl during their teenage years.
The numbers from the 406-page study -- which says teen addiction has become "the largest preventable and most costly public health problem in America today" -- might shock those who believe their children can avoid a substance's temptation during the high school years.
Nationwide, 75 percent of high school students -- 10 million teens -- have used such addictive substances as cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana or cocaine, according to the study. Almost half of high school students are currently using one, some or all of those substances, and 19.4 percent have a clinical substance use disorder, the report states.
"And these estimates are low; none includes adolescents who are incarcerated in the juvenile justice system or the large numbers of adolescents who have dropped out of high school," states the report, which was issued this summer by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Researchers warned that "the underdeveloped teen brain" makes addiction likelier, heightening the possibility of impaired judgment and bad decisions throughout life.
Unlike many high-profile studies, Columbia's did not have data broken down by states, but local officials say Chattanooga is not immune from its findings. Even though the Hamilton County school system prohibits all tobacco products inside its 78 schools, some forms of it are easier to hide than others.
"Obviously, [smokeless tobacco] is harder to detect," said Karen Glenn, the system's director of Students Taking a Right Stand, or STARS. "It's against policy, so we're not hearing about it. But I'm sure some people are doing it where it's not in plain view and where people are not enforcing it."
The report found that costs associated with teen substance abuse include an estimated $68 billion toward underage drinking and $14 billion in drug-related juvenile justice costs. Overall costs to federal, state and local governments of substance abuse are $468 billion a year, or "almost $1,500 for every person in America," according to the report.
"We rightfully worry about other teen problems like obesity, depression or bullying, but we turn a blind eye to a more common and deadly epidemic that we can in fact prevent," said Susan Foster, vice president and director of policy research and analysis at The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
The report blames a number of outside factors, including parents, lawmakers and advertisers, but it isn't without proposed solutions for each culprit: setting a good example at home, higher taxes on tobacco and alcohol products and the elimination of "marketing efforts to adolescents that makes addictive substances appear attractive."
Kevin Lusk, chairman of the volunteer community coalition Smoke Free Chattanooga, said cigarettes were the gateway to illegal drugs, adding that parents must be the ground forces in the war on addiction.
"If the kids see the parents smoking, the chances of them picking up a cigarette automatically go up," he said.
Health advocates hope the study encourages parents to go a step further. Jay Collum, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department's tobacco control coordinator, said prescription drugs often are overlooked when it comes to addiction.
"Early on, parents need to tell their kids not to ever take someone else's medication," he said. "There does appear to be some casualness about that -- a lot of kids are having prescription drug parties where they dump pills in a bowl and don't know what they're taking."
The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Health Council is scheduled to release a localized study on teen addiction within a few months, Lusk said.