New research from the Journal of Adolescent Health (JAH) found that young people are abusing prescription painkillers far more than any other age group and more than any other youth in history.
An all-too-common remedy found in America’s medicine cabinets is quickly becoming the drug of choice for today’s young people.
Closing in fast on cannabis as the most frequently consumed illegal drugs among today’s teenagers are prescription opioids. Recreational use of prescription opioids by youth between the ages of 12 and 17 has increased tenfold since the 1960s.
Lead author of the JAH study, Richard Miech, Ph.D., with the University of Colorado–Denver, evaluated data on several drugs and the generations that favor them. Miech began his age cohort analysis with marijuana and found, as you might expect, that this drug was most popular among the baby boomers.
“That message came out loud and clear through my data analysis,” said Miech. “So I decided to extend the research. I started looking at prescription drugs use because it turns out that’s the number one growing cause of death in the United States.”
Given the enormous rise in U.S. painkiller prescriptions over the last two decades, Miech assumed that baby boomers would have the biggest appetite for these drugs, too. However, after examining data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 1985 to 2009, he found that today’s youth consume prescription analgesics for nonmedical use 40 percent more than any other age group.
“Especially since I live in Colorado where they just legalized marijuana in the last election, there’s a lot of worry about what’s going to happen with today’s youth and marijuana use,” said Miech.
“But as it turns out, the youth are really turning away from that,” he said. “For some reason they seem to be heading toward prescription drugs instead.”
“For some reason, prescription opioids aren’t being redefined as potentially dangerous and lethal, and in large part I suppose it’s because they have this pharmaceutical backing,”
—Dr. Richard Miech, Ph.D., University of Colorado Denver
Other studies have shown that a U.S. teen is now more likely to abuse prescription drugs than street drugs. One of the biggest reasons for the switch is easy availability.
With effects similar to heroin or morphine, prescription opioid drugs, mostly hydrocodone and oxycodone, are now the most prescribed class of drugs in America, according to an April 2011 report from the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“These drugs are just everywhere now,” said Miech.
With over 80 percent of the world’s opioid medications consumed in the United States, all age groups have naturally shown a rise in use. However, researchers have observed that use among young people is still much higher than expected in proportion to other age cohorts.
One issue that may explain teen preference is the perception of safety. One survey showed that one-third of teens believes that there is “nothing wrong” with using prescription medications nonmedically “once in a while.”
Miech believes that while many parents may be inadvertently adding to the problem by modeling drug behavior through their own use, he notes that—because they are made by a pharmaceutical company and prescribed by a doctor—prescription drugs carry a greater cultural legitimacy.
“For some reason, prescription opioids aren’t being redefined as potentially dangerous and lethal, and in large part I suppose it’s because they have this pharmaceutical backing,” said Miech.
History has shown that people’s perception of drugs can change drastically over time. Not too long ago, many believed that recreational cocaine use was not a serious concern. National surveys from the early 1980s show that as much as 20 percent of adults admitted to trying cocaine.
“It’s hard to believe now, but at that time cocaine use was considered safe—and glamorous,” Miech said.
In an article from a 1982 Scientific American magazine, Yale University psychiatrists argued that U.S. drug enforcement efforts to keep cocaine out of America “may not be justified” because death from recreational use was rare, and the drug was no more addictive than “peanuts or potato chips.”
“All that changed when a couple celebrities died from cocaine overdose,” said Meich.
“Within just a few short years, cocaine changed its definition as glamorous to dangerous and unsavory,” he said. “And I think it was in large part because of the media exposure that cocaine got.”
According to Miech, unlike cocaine, media exposure highlighting the dangers of prescription drugs has so far not been enough. While prescription drug overdose has killed some celebrities in the past few years, and fostered many more addictions, cultural attitudes have changed little.
“I don’t know if it’s going to take another death of another couple of celebrities or what,” Miech said. “But hopefully getting the word out there will change people’s attitudes and behaviors about prescription drugs.”
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