After years of decline, youth substance use began to increase again in the 1990s. Policy-makers introduced strategies to reverse this trend, but too often those strategies were not backed by evidence that they worked.
Bridging the Gap: Research Informing Practice for Healthy Youth is a multisite, multidisciplinary research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). It is dedicated to improving health outcomes by increasing knowledge of how laws, policies, practices, programs and other environmental influences at the state, community and school levels affect youth behaviors.
From 1997 to 2004, research conducted under Bridging the Gap studied adolescent smoking, drinking and illicit drug use. Since 2004, it has shifted to youth diet, physical activity, obesity and tobacco use. This report primarily covers Bridging the Gap's work on substance use, including tobacco.
Bridging the Gap builds on the federally funded Monitoring the Future survey of school students and includes two components:
- YES! (Youth, Education, & Society), focused on students and schools
- ImpacTeen, focused on communities and states
- Bridging the Gap produced comprehensive databases of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug policies in all 50 states. The databases included policies and characteristics of 1,000 communities and analyses of survey responses from 1,000 school principals.
- Analyses of databases created by Bridging the Gap, individually and in combination, have been used to learn more about how policies and programs affect decisions by adolescents to smoke, drink or use drugs. For example, researchers have explored:
- How students get tobacco products and how easy they are to get
- The effects of home, school, community and state restrictions on youth smoking
- Variations in how retail stores market alcohol
- Whether testing students for drugs influences their drug use
- How zero-tolerance underage drinking and driving laws affect youth drinking and driving
- Advocates have used Bridging the Gap findings to influence state and local laws. According to Daniel McGoldrick, vice president at the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, the research findings have "contributed immensely to 47 states and the District of Columbia having passed more than 108 separate tobacco excise tax increases since the beginning of 2000."
- Bridging the Gap's infrastructure, innovative analytic methods and the styles of its directors became models for other substantive research efforts. Although RWJF reduced its focus on substance abuse, it continued Bridging the Gap, applying its structure and retaining its leaders to address childhood obesity.
- Bridging the Gap staff and partners produced more than 150 articles, reports and issue briefs about substance use as of June 2010. They also made more than 300 presentations at conferences and meetings.
Researchers reported the following key findings in an overview published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and in reports to RWJF:
- Multiple analyses demonstrated that higher cigarette prices and strong smoke-free air policies reduce smoking by youth.
- Student smoking tends to be higher in schools that permit staff smoking on school grounds.
- Exposure to anti-smoking advertising sponsored by tobacco companies is associated with increases in youth smoking.
- Zero-tolerance laws targeting underage drinking and driving reduce that combination of behaviors, but they do not reduce youth drinking.
- Drug testing in schools does not reduce drug use among students.
- Marijuana prices are associated with youth marijuana use.
Program Management: Frank J. Chaloupka, PhD, director of the Health Policy Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Lloyd D. Johnston, PhD, director of the Youth and Social Issues Program at the Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, co-direct Bridging the Gap. Chaloupka also directs the national program office, called the Coordinating Center.
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