April 5, 2002

The El Paso Youth Risk Behavior Survey: Children in Danger

by Greg Bloom
FNS Editor

A youth risk behavior survey conducted among 7th and 8th graders from El Paso County in 2001 looked at tobacco, alcohol and illegal drug use, weight, body image and exercise issues, television viewing habits and the use of safety devices like seat belts and bike helmets.

The study was done by the Center for Border Health Research and the UT Houston Health Sciences Center School of Public Health (El Paso Regional Campus). Also collaborating and providing funding was the Paso del Norte Health Foundation and its Action for Youth Initiative.

Tobacco use

Among those surveyed, 49% had taken at least one or two puffs on a cigarette at least once in their lives. While there was little difference in tobacco use between the sexes, students were more likely to have tried smoking by 8th grade. In 7th grade, 44% of students had tried tobacco. By 8th grade, this figure rose to 54%.

Among those students that completed the survey, 83% were ages 13 and 14.

While youth risk behavior surveys are usually done in the nation’s high schools, El Paso decided to look at junior high students who are at an age when intervention programs have been found to be more effective. Finding gaps like the one between the smoking rates of 7th and 8th graders are what researchers had hoped to locate and suggest that 7th grade is an important time to have antismoking programs.

Current smokers, those that had taken a puff or two in the last thirty days, were only 12% of those surveyed. There was no difference by sex or grade level in this category. Good news for El Paso health is that the 12% figure is considered to be far less than the Texas average of 20% for girls and 21% for boys. Only 3.6% of those surveyed said that they had smoked tobacco on more than six of the previous thirty days.

Three percent of those that had obtained cigarettes within the last 30 days bought them from stores. Of these, 29% said that they were not asked to provide proof of age.


Asked if they had ever had a drink of alcohol, “other than a few sips,” 59% of the 7th and 8th grade students said yes. While there was no significant difference in answers as measured by age, it was recognized that initiation to alcohol comes at an earlier point in life. Of those that had tried alcohol, 70% had their first drink at age 12 or earlier.


Regarding marijuana use, boys were more likely than girls to have tried the drug. Of the boys surveyed, 24% said they had tried marijuana compared to 16% of girls. 24% percent of 8th graders had tried marijuana compared to 16% of 7th graders.

By comparison, a recent study reported on in the Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas newspaper, El Mañana, on February 12, 2002, found that thirty-five percent of students in three Nuevo Laredo middle schools said that they had tried alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs at least once. Ten to 12% percent of the 600 students surveyed said that they had tried marijuana, cocaine or other types of inhaled illegal drugs at least once.

What may be a better cross-border comparison will be available when the responses to a Ciudad Juárez youth risk behavior survey have been analyzed. This study was conducted by the Center for Border Health Research in collaboration with Femap’s Hospital de la Familia in Cd. Juárez.

Other Drugs

Eight percent of those participating in the risk survey had tried cocaine, 2% had used steroids and 1% had injected illegal drugs. Nineteen percent said they had sniffed glue or inhaled sprays or paints. The Center for Border Health Research cautions that common household items used as inhalants can cause severe damage to the brain, heart, kidney, liver and other organs and can cause death.

Sexual Activity

Seventeen percent of those surveyed have had sexual intercourse and 53% have had more than one partner. Additionally, 34% of respondents did not use a condom during their most recent sexual intercourse although boys were more likely to report utilizing condoms than girls were.

Body weight and body image

While 30% of boys were overweight compared to 22% of girls, 33% of girls saw themselves as overweight compared to 28% of boys. However, misperception of body image is common in both boys and girls. Thirty-three percent of boys who see themselves as overweight are not overweight. For girls, this figure is 54%. Nine percent of girls saw themselves as not overweight when they were overweight. This figure is 16% for boys.

Forty-four percent of boys are currently trying to lose weight versus 57% of girls. While most students reported using appropriate methods of weight loss such as exercise and eating less food, fewer calories or less fat, many boys and girls reported inappropriate and often unsafe weight loss methods such as fasts lasting 24 or more hours, the use of diet supplements or laxatives, or self-induced vomiting.

Exercise, TV and weight

More then 50% of students reported exercising on four or more of the last seven days. However, only 33% of students reported daily physical education in school.

Also at 50% was the number of students that watched three or more hours of television daily. Twenty-eight percent watched four or more hours of daily television.

Fifteen percent of those watching no TV are overweight or at risk as compared to 33% of those that watch five or more hours of television per day.

Personal Safety

Although accidents are the number one cause of death among 7th and 8th graders, only 36% of students always wear their seat belt when riding in a car. Only 2% always wear a helmet when biking and only 3% always wear a helmet when skateboarding or rollerblading.

Also according to the Center for Border Health Research, children need to be educated about the dangers of riding with a drunk driver. Fifty-two percent said that they had been in a car with someone who had been drinking alcohol.

Forty-four percent of boys had carried a gun, knife or club to school compared to just 13% of girls. While 67% of boys had been in a physical fight, 43% of girls had been in one as well. However, both 7% of boys and girls had received medical treatment stemming from injuries sustained in a physical fight.

What to do?

Conclusions drawn by the Center for Border Health Research from the survey include recommendations that children exercise more and develop more realistic body images. Personal safety issues need to be addressed as well and adults need to set examples for young teens in such things as alcohol, tobacco, and seat belt use. Early intervention is necessary as age is an important factor in the initiation of tobacco use, alcohol use, the use of other drugs, and sexual activity.

FNS is an outreach program of the Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico

Return to the Frontpage