Racial Disparities in Substance Use Trajectories Among Adolescents and Young Adults: The Role of Neighborhood Context

Sean Reardon, The Pennsylvania State University
Stephen Buka, Harvard School of Public Health

Large racial and ethnic disparities exist in substance use prevalence in the U.S. The reasons for these disparities are not well understood, however, particularly given the fact that they operate in a direction opposite that suggested by most theories of disadvantage (most theories of disadvantage predict higher rates of problem behavior and delinquency among minority and disadvantaged youth). In this paper we investigate the possibility that differences in the social environments of youth_specifically their neighborhoods of residence_may play a role in the observed disparities in substance use. Using data from 2,100 adolescent subjects age 12-21 living in 80 neighborhoods of Chicago included in the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), we estimate race-specific population-average age-prevalence curves for alcohol and marijuana use. We then examine the extent to which race/ethnic disparities in these curves are reduced when we explicitly account for neighborhood residence in the models. We find that racial disparities in alcohol use are reduced by roughly 30% when we account for neighborhood residence. We observe no significant racial/ethnic disparities in marijuana use, a fact that remains after controlling for neighborhood contexts as well. We conclude that neighborhood context may influence adolescent substance use patterns.

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Updated 05/20/2006