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SUBSTANCE ABUSE IS TOP CONCERN OF TEENS IN SURVEY

Young teenagers between 12 and 14 years old say substance abuse, sexual choice matters and the environment are the issues that most concern them, a survey of 5,300 letters by teens to Congress showed Monday.

The letters were written to members of Congress by youngsters participating in the Respec-Teen Speak for Yourself education program, funded by Lutheran Brotherhood, a Minneapolis-based non-profit insurance firm.The project aims to make the 7th- and 8th-graders - who cannot vote and therefore have no political influence - more visible in the policy dialogue on issues that affect their lives.

Under the program, young people are encouraged to reflect on such issues and to share their concerns and ideas with policymakers.

As part of the program, a young letter writer from each of the nation's 435 congressional districts will be brought to Washington June 10 for a four-day "national youth forum," where they will meet legislators and formulate their own set of recommendations about youth issues.

Of the 5,300 letters written by the youngsters participating in the program, 25 percent cited drug and alcohol abuse as their top concern while 17 percent said they most cared about sexual issues such as teen pregnancy, sex education, abortion and birth control.

In third place were environmental issues, which 10 percent of the letter writers listed as their top concern, followed by crime (including gang violence, gun control and capital punishment), cited by 7 percent and education, child abuse and suicide, each named by 5 percent.

According to RespecTeen officials, a common theme running through the letters was a belief that better and earlier education could have a major impact on reducing these problems.

"When my parents went to school, the biggest problem was chewing gum and running in the halls," one letter said. "Now the problem is drugs and alcohol."

According to an analysis of the letters, most of the students equated drug abuse with crime and violence and the majority of letters called for harsh punishment for dealers and even for users.