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Illicit drug use in the military has plunged nearly 90 percent since 1980, thanks to a get-tough policy and declining drug use in American society, a study says.

Cigarette smoking has dropped by one-third in the same period, the report says. The rate of heavy drinking showed a smaller drop, which was attributed to changes in military demographics.The report tracked trends from six worldwide surveys of American military personnel, each including about 15,000 to 22,000 participants who answered confidential questionnaires. The surveys, sponsored by the Defense Department, covered the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines. (The Coast Guard is not part of that department.)

Results were reported Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association by psychologist Robert Bray of the Research Triangle Institute in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

"We found a very dramatic decline" in illicit drug use, he said in an interview before his talk.

Survey participants were asked about drug use within the prior 30 days. When their responses were weighted to reflect the armed forces as a whole, they revealed that some 27.6 percent of military personnel used illicit drugs in 1980.

But the figure fell steadily after that, to 19 percent in 1982, 8.9 percent in 1985, 4.8 percent in 1988, 3.4 percent in 1992 and 3 percent in 1995. The 1995 rate is about one-third the civilian rate adjusted for differences in demographic makeup, Bray said.

The 89 percent decline showed up about equally in all illicit drugs, Bray said. There was also an 82 percent drop in illicit drug use within the 12 months prior to the survey.

To explain the trends, Bray cited an intensified program of urine testing by the military starting in the early 1980s, with a positive finding as grounds for discharge. "The message was, DOD was not going to tolerate drug use," he said.

Everybody is tested at least annually at random, unannounced times, said Roger Hartman, a health policy analyst for the Defense Department.

Expelling drug users is a switch from prior practice, Hartman said.

"In the past, we had tolerated, quite frankly, drug users," Hart-man said. They were treated and kept in the military. But in the mid-1980s, military leaders toughened the policy and "we simply did not tolerate any drug use," he said.

"We didn't want to tolerate an illegal activity. We didn't want to tolerate somebody being impaired on the job, and putting his or her life in danger," as well as the lives of others.

In the past several years the military has shrunk, he noted. "There's no margin for having people impaired. The force is simply smaller. We don't have replacement bodies to go around."

A second reason for the decline, Bray said, is a drop in the popularity of drugs in the general population. But statistical analysis showed this factor was not enough to explain the military decline.

Bray's report also showed that levels of smoking, defined as having at least one cigarette in the prior 30 days and at least 100 in one's life, dropped from 51 percent in 1980 to 32 percent in 1995.

Smoking rates ran above civilian ones in the surveys until 1995, when they were about equal, he said.

Bray credited military smoking bans and stop-smoking programs, as well as declines of smoking in society in general.