Youth smoking and drug abuse declined again this year, concludes a federal study that also found marked progress over the last decade in persuading teens to avoid cigarettes and illicit substances.

The smoking rate among younger teens (search) is half what it was in the mid-1990s, and drug use by that group is down by one-third, says the University of Michigan study, done for the National Institute on Drug Abuse and released Tuesday. Less dramatic strides have been made among older teens.

Altogether, gains in 2004 over 2003 were modest. Researchers were bothered by increases in the use of inhalants such as glue, aerosols and the pain-control narcotic OxyContin (search). Use of most other drugs declined or held steady.

This was the eighth consecutive year that smoking rates among surveyed teens dropped, a turnaround that began in 1996 among students in grades eight and 10 and a year later among 12th-graders.

"We know that young people have come to see cigarette smoking as more dangerous, while they also have become less accepting of cigarette use, and these changes continued into 2004," said Lloyd Johnston, lead researcher for the Monitoring the Future study.

Researchers credited higher cigarette prices, tighter marketing practices, anti-smoking ads and withdrawal of the Joe Camel logo among the reasons smoking has fallen out of favor with more teens. Close to three-quarters of surveyed 12th-graders now say they'd rather not date a smoker, up from close to one-third in 1977.

"When smoking makes a teen less attractive to the great majority of the opposite sex, as now appears to be the case, one of the long-imagined benefits for adolescent smoking is seriously undercut," Johnston said.

Overall, the percentage of eighth-graders who had ever tried cigarettes declined to 28 percent this year, down half a percentage point from 2003 and from a peak of 49 percent in 1996.

About 41 percent of 10th-graders had tried cigarettes, down 1 percentage point from a year earlier and from 61 percent in 1996.

And 53 percent of seniors had smoked at least once in their lives, down 1 percentage point from 2003 and from more than 65 percent in 1997.

Even so, cigarette use has hardly been stamped out among youth. The study reported that 25 percent of 12th-graders said they had smoked within 30 days of being surveyed, as did 16 percent of 10th-graders and 9 percent of eighth-graders.

The study also found that progress in discouraging teen drinking in recent years held steady for the lower grades in 2004. Researchers said it would take another year to know whether a small increase indicated in drinking by seniors was real or a statistical blip.

They reported a gradual decline in drug use this year over last. Eighth-graders have been less apt to use drugs for eight years running while drug use among seniors has declined for three years.

The survey found 15 percent of eighth-graders, 31 percent of 10th-graders and 39 percent of 12th-graders had used drugs in the previous year — down 1 percentage point or less from the year before.

Inhalants emerged as a particular concern; their use went up in all three grades last year and again, marginally, in 2004.

Within that drug group, researchers noted the apparent growing popularity of OxyContin, which up to 5 percent of seniors and smaller percentages of younger teens reported having tried in the last year. By contrast, 1 percent or less of teens had tried heroin in a year.

OxyContin is a powerful and potentially addictive synthetic narcotic.

The study questioned 50,000 students in about 400 schools nationwide as part of a series that began three decades ago with high school seniors. Surveys of eighth-graders and 10th-graders were added in 1991.