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Survey: Increased Health Risks for Gay Teens

CDC Study Shows Gay High School Students Are More Likely to Smoke and Use Drugs

By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Laura J. Martin, MD

June 7, 2011 -- High school students who identify as being gay, lesbian, or bisexual are more likely than heterosexual students to smoke, drink alcohol, use drugs, and take part in violent and suicidal behaviors, a CDC survey shows.

CDC researchers analyzed survey results from about 156,000 high school students.

"This report should be a wake-up call for families, schools, and communities that we need to do a much better job of supporting these young people," Howard Wechsler, EdD, MPH, of the CDC, says in a news release. "Any effort to promote adolescent health and safety must take into account the additional stressors these youth experience because of their sexual orientation, such as stigma, discrimination and victimization."

The study is the first time the federal government has conducted an analysis of such a large magnitude and across a wide array of states, large urban school districts, and risk behaviors.

The gay, lesbian, or bisexual students reported having sexual contact only with people of the same sex or both sexes. The heterosexual students reported having sex only with members of the opposite sex.

The study of data for the years 2001-2009 was published as a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Surveillance summary.

Health Risks for Gay Teens

The report highlights 76 health risks in 10 categories:

  • Behaviors that contribute to unintentional injuries, such as rarely or never using a seat belt.
  • Behaviors that contribute to violence, such as skipping school due to safety to concerns.
  • Behaviors related to attempted suicide, such as coming up with or having a suicide plan.
  • Alcohol, such as binge drinking.
  • Current use of other drugs such as marijuana.
  • Dietary behaviors, such as eating vegetables three or more times per day.
  • Physical activity and sedentary behaviors. This might include, for example, being physically active at least an hour daily for seven days.
  • Weight management. This included not eating for 24 hours or more in order to lose weight, or keep from gaining weight.

When sexual identity was taken into account, gay or lesbian students had higher prevalence rates for 49% to 90% of all health risks measured.

Gay or lesbian students had higher rates than heterosexual teens for seven of the 10 risk categories, including behaviors related to attempted suicide, tobacco use, alcohol use, other drug use, sexual behaviors, violence, and weight management.

Bisexual students also had higher prevalence rates for health risks. These youths had prevalence rates for 57% to 86% of all health risks measured, including activities that contribute to violence and attempted suicide, tobacco use, alcohol use, other drug use, sexual behaviors, and weight management, unintentional injuries.

Promoting Healthy Environments for All

"For youth to thrive in their schools and communities, they need to feel socially, emotionally and physically safe and supported," says Laura Kann, also of CDC and author of the report. "Schools and communities should take concrete steps to promote healthy environments for all students, such as prohibiting violence and bullying, creating safe spaces where young people can receive support from caring adults, and improving health education and health services to meet the needs of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth."

National, state and local surveys are conducted every two years among high school students in the U.S. to monitor risks to health and behaviors like smoking, drinking, and violence. The surveys also monitor obesity and asthma.

Other key findings of the study, reported in the June 6 edition of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report:

  • 90.3% to 93.6% of youths identified themselves as heterosexual, compared to 1% to 2.6% gay or lesbian. Bisexual youths made up between 2.9% and 5.2% of the study population.
  • 1.3% to 4.7% of youths were not sure of their sexual identity.
  • 37.2% to 60.9% of the students reported sexual contact only with the opposite sex.
  • 30.4% to 59.3% of youths said they had had no sexual contact.

Behaviors Harmful to Health

The report also says the prevalence of heterosexual teens having rarely or never worn a seatbelt ranged from 7.1 % to 23.2%, compared to about 13.1% to 35.8%% among gay and lesbian students and 11.3 to 28.8%% among bisexual youths. The numbers varied slightly depending on states and regions.

Other findings:

  • Across nine study sites, 12.7% to 36.3% of heterosexual students reported currently smoking cigarettes, compared to 20.3% to 48.2% of gay and lesbian students and 26.1% to 49.2% of bisexual students.
  • Across eight study sites, the prevalence of having carried a weapon on at least one day during the 30 days before the survey was lower among heterosexual than gay or lesbian students in five sites, lower among heterosexual than bisexual students in eight sites, and lower among heterosexual than unsure students in two sites.
  • Across nine study sites, the prevalence of having been in a physical fight was lower among heterosexual than gay or lesbian students in seven sites, lower among heterosexual than bisexual students in eight sites, and lower among heterosexual than unsure students in five sites.
  • Across 12 study sites, the prevalence of heterosexual students who had made a suicide plan ranged from 9.8% to 18.7%, compared to 11.4% to 32.5% among gay and lesbian students and 26.3% to 48.8% among bisexual students.


News release, CDC.

Kann, L. "Sexual Identity, Sex or Sexual Contacts, and Health-Risk Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9-12, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance, Selected Sites, United States, 2001-2009."

© 2011 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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