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Survey results highlight teen confusion around vaping, which is linked to drug and alcohol use

When it comes to youth alcohol and drug use, Colorado is making progress in some areas even as new challenges emerge, according to a comprehensive survey of Colorado teens released today.

“The landscape of risks facing Colorado youth is changing,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. “The growth of vaping is an example of how developing threats demand increased youth prevention education. The new research demonstrates that this effort needs to start at earlier ages and requires all of us—parents, educators, civic leaders and youth themselves—to work to mitigate the risks and reinforce positive factors that protect our youth.”

“While there are concerning challenges, the data show us that we have a great opportunity to help equip our youth with the tools to make good decisions,” said Kent MacLennan, executive director of Rise Above Colorado, which commissioned the survey with support from a grant through the Colorado Department of Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health. Rise Above Colorado ( is a statewide nonprofit organization that empowers teens to live free of drug misuse and addiction.

The newly released research, conducted in 2018, builds on similar statewide studies conducted since 2009 and most recently in 2016. Survey responses were professionally gathered by HealthCare Research over the phone and online, compiling responses from more than 600 youth based on a representative sample of the entire state.

Key findings include:

Perceived Risk of Substance Use

  • Among Colorado youth ages 12-17, alcohol is the most commonly used substance followed by marijuana – and teens are decreasingly likely to perceive either substance as risky.
  • Perception of risk of using prescription pain relievers to get high increased from 2016, including 65 percent who see great risk in using them once or twice, up 17 points from 2016. In addition, significantly more youth recognize that prescription pain relievers like OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin are just as dangerous and addictive as street drugs.

A lower perception of risk is of concern because it can make youth more likely to use substances while a higher perception of risk can deter future use.

The Opportunity for Prevention in Middle School

  • The transition from middle to high school is a key point when youth are finding alcohol and drugs easier to access, are being offered these substances more often, and are more curious to try them. The biggest increase in access to substances occurs between 14 and 15 years.

Research shows that 90 percent of addictions start with use in the teenage years. Rise Above Colorado urges increased youth education including science-based information about the developing brain and the associated risks of using substances during adolescence, as well as skills to resist peer pressure.

Perception vs. Reality about Peer Substance Use

  • The 2018 survey revealed that significantly more middle school youth are forming accurate perceptions of substance use among their peers. Overestimation of peer substance use among middle school-aged youth declined by more than 20 percent for all substances in the survey except marijuana, which remained stable.
  • However, the vast majority of Colorado high school students (92%) are overestimating how many of their schoolmates have recently used marijuana, an increase from 2016.

The overestimation of prevalence among peers can lead to increased use, while closing the gap between perceived and reported use has been proven to decrease substance use over time. Closing this gap and, instead, normalizing the fact that most youth are making healthy choices is the objective of Rise Above Colorado’s current messaging campaign to youth.


  • Colorado youth who smoke tobacco or vape are 10 times as likely to misuse prescription drugs, five times as likely to use marijuana and more than twice as likely to drink alcohol.
  • The survey suggests Colorado teens who vape may be unwittingly using nicotine products. Of youth who vape, 78 percent reported using nicotine-free flavoring. Yet they may be misinformed: almost all vape products sold in convenience stores – including all of the popular JUUL products – contain nicotine, often in high doses.

While smoking has been declining, Colorado youth are vaping nicotine at twice the national average, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In response to this emerging issue, Rise Above Colorado has launched an informational webpage about vaping in collaboration with local experts and authored by and for Colorado youth.

Other Key Indicators

  • There was no significant change in youth marijuana use between 2016 and 2018 – despite the legalization of recreational marijuana for those 21 years or older in 2014. Youth reported that marijuana has become easier to access.
  • One in four youth said they had six or more difficult mental health days in the previous month – and these teens are significantly more likely to have tried alcohol, marijuana and prescription pain relievers.
  • Compared to 2016, fewer Colorado youth reported they had received substance use education at school.

The full Rise Above Colorado youth survey is available here.

Rise Above Colorado actively engages teens where they are the most – online. #IRiseAbove is a movement changing the conversation about teens in Colorado and the choices they make daily. Rise Above Colorado staff and Teen Action Council post inspirational, passion-filled photos and skill-building content across key social media platforms encouraging teens across the state to share and explore their own passions and inspirations to Rise Above.

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Media Contacts:

Kent MacLennan
Rise Above Colorado
(720) 425-4200

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