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Feb. 3, 2004

Race and religion protect kids from drugs, U-M study finds

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—African American adolescents are more likely than white adolescents to abstain from alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana, a University of Michigan study shows, and one reason for this difference may be because Black youths overall are more religious.

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 data were drawn from the Monitoring the Future study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and conducted annually by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.

Past research has attempted to understand 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," said John Wallace, Jr., an associate professor in U-M's School of Social Work and the study's first author.

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

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

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.

Related links:

See the charts >

Background on Wallace and Bachman >

Monitoring the Future >

Contact: Jared Wadley
Phone: (734) 936-7819
E-mail: jwadley@umich.edu