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Kids these days -- they're not so bad!

Adolescents and teens in Minnesota are healthier overall than they were a decade ago, with lower rates of smoking, drinking and sexual activity, according to a new study by the state Health Department.

But minorities continue to be at greater risk than whites for drug use, violence, chronic disease, early death and other health problems. And those disparities cannot be ignored, because a quarter of the state's youth population now consists of minorities, said Dr. Edward Ehlinger, state health commissioner.

The bright side, Ehlinger noted, is that many measures of minority health in the state have improved.

"It's good news because we continue to trend down on many of the behaviors of concern," Ehlinger said. "It is also good news that we are seeing the same trends with populations of color and American Indians. The bad news is we have disparities that are persistent."

Teen birthrates, for example, have dropped to record lows. Only 15 births were reported for every 1,000 white girls ages 15 to 19 in Minnesota in 2009. The rate among black girls has dropped by more than half since 1990, though it remains four times higher than the rate among whites.

Teens from all racial groups are reporting less cigarette smoking, binge drinking, physical fights and sexual activity. They're drinking pop less and using seat belts more. Declines in marijuana use have leveled off over the past decade, though, and the rate of teens reporting emotional distress has increased.

The Health Department analysis came the same week that a national study found surprising signs of declining youth obesity in New York, Philadelphia and other cities, apparently because of health campaigns targeted at the young.

The Minnesota findings are based on old data, primarily the 2010 Minnesota Student Survey, but this is the first time the department has broken down the survey results by race.

Ehlinger attributes the state's overall progress to partnerships with communities and schools to teach children healthy behaviors and the consequences of unhealthy or risky choices. Even one of the scourges of Minnesota -- its rising rate of obese children -- has started to level off in the past couple of years, he said.

"Health is linked to educational achievement," Ehlinger said. "I think schools are getting that message. I think parents are getting that message."

One example is an after-school cross-country ski club run by the Loppet Foundation. On Wednesday, a dozen students -- all minority members -- from the Nellie Stone Johnson Community School in north Minneapolis spent an hour skiing the trails at Wirth Park.

"Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no ..." 13-year-old Tagian Hughes yelled as he sped down a hill, while his coach yelled, "Make a wedge! Make a wedge!"

Hughes artfully avoided classmate Ligarius Munn before hitting a rut in the snow and falling.

For Hughes, the skiing is just fun. Munn said it keeps him from watching too much TV. For 11-year-old Rosario Kantar, it's a source of exercise.

"And sweat," she said. "Especially sweat."

Ounce of prevention

Ehlinger said Minnesota must focus on its racial health disparities because its minority population is growing.

Minority students were more likely to drink sugary fruit juices, while white students were more likely to drink milk, according to the student survey data. Hispanic students were less likely to exercise regularly than their peers.

Eighteen percent of black and American Indian sixth-graders in the latest student survey indicated that they had health problems such as asthma that had lasted for more than a year. The rate among white sixth-graders was only 12 percent.

While treatments for chronic diseases are improving, Ehlinger said the state will be better off if it can prevent diseases in the first place.

"We are not going to be able to treat ourselves to good health," he said. "We are going to have to do prevention."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744