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Race and religion protect kids from drugs


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African American adolescents are more likely than white adolescents to abstain from alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana, a U-M study shows. One reason for this difference may be because Black youths overall are more religious, the study says.

The study, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, used data from more than 53,000 Black and white 10th graders to examine the relationship between race, religion and abstinence from alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana. The findings were drawn from the Monitoring the Future study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and conducted annually by the Institute for Social Research (ISR).

Past research has attempted to illuminate why young people use drugs, but little research has explained why some young people abstain from drug use. This study focused on an explanation that most research has ignored—religion.

"Our data suggest that religion is a powerful protective factor against adolescent drug use," says John Wallace Jr., associate professor in the School of Social Work and an author of the study.

Wallace and co-authors Jerald Bachman, a research scientist at ISR, Tony Brown of Vanderbilt University and Thomas LaVeist of Johns Hopkins University found that youths who were more religious were more likely never to have used alcohol, tobacco or marijuana.

For example, 43 percent of white 10th graders who said religion was a very important part of their life never have used alcohol, compared with 20 percent who said religion is not an important part of their life. Similarly, 59 percent of Black 10th graders who said religion was very important abstained from cigarette use, while that rate was just 48 percent among those who said religion was not important.

An unexpected finding of the research was that although religion is more prevalent among African Americans, its impact on drug use was more powerful among whites. More specifically, the study examined abstinence among highly religious youth—those who said religion was a very important part of their lives, who attend religious services weekly or more, and who are affiliated with a theologically conservative denomination. Overall, 12 percent of white youths fit this profile, compared to 25 percent of the African American population.

"Religion protects both Black and white youths from drug use, but among kids who are most religious, the data suggest that white youths are even more likely to have never used alcohol or marijuana," Wallace says.

Additionally, Wallace notes, the study's findings suggest that religion and the nation's religious organizations are important agents of public health. Accordingly, clergy, youth group leaders, churches and other faith-based organizations should be recognized and included—along with parents, teachers, social workers, schools and other agencies—in efforts to prevent substance use among young people, he says.

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