Teen opioid use appears to decline despite increases in drug-related deaths among adults

Misuse of prescription opioids among 12th graders continued to decline in 2017 despite increasing rates of overdose deaths in other age groups, survey data suggests.

The annual Monitoring the Future survey, published Thursday, shows that misuse of Vicodin and Oxycontin by 12th graders has reached a historic low of 4.2 percent, a 0.5 percent decrease from the year before. The totals represent half the usage recorded in 2004, when 9.5 percent of high school seniors said they had misused a prescription opioid during the past 12 months.

“Several years ago we became very concerned by what to my mind were remarkably high rates of prescription opioid misuse by youths all across the country,” said Dr. Wilson Compton, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the agency that funded the survey.

“Since then we have seen some decline,” he continued. “Over the last few years we have seen marked decline in 12th graders in particular reporting misuse of these prescription opioids. So I think that’s very good news that families and communities are finding ways to keep children safe from these potentially deadly medications.”

Vicodin, the most-used opioid among teens surveyed, showed a decline in use among 12th graders from 2.9 percent in 2016 to 2 percent in 2017. Its annual prevalence is now at the lowest levels in all three grades observed — meaning 8th, 10th and 12th grades — since it was first included in the study in 2002.

Most teens who report that they have used opioids tend to use them intermittently or occasionally, Compton said, adding that for the most part, “these are not the heavy, daily regular users.”

With most age groups the usage of prescription painkillers often leads to the drug’s illicit alternative, heroin. With teens, however, heroin use has historically been low. Its usage didn’t significantly change in 2017, with annual use levels at 0.4 percent or lower in all three grades. Compton noted that people who use heroin tend to begin in their late teens.

“Even though we are seeing increasing numbers overall in the population, it’s starting after secondary school,” he said. “It’s starting in young adults or may be among those who are no longer in school because they dropped out.”

The study has one key caveat that could indicate opioid use in teens is higher than the survey suggests. The survey, conducted with about 5,000 students, is done in classrooms, meaning results likely exclude students who are struggling with addiction and may not be present to answer questions, leaving a gap in tracking prevalence.

“Particularly for the 12th graders that’s a concern,” Compton acknowledges. “That it’s not going to include someone who has dropped or are homeless or in an institution somewhere.”

For this reason those who conduct the survey, researchers from the University of Michigan, began including younger grades because most dropouts occur after the 10th grade.

“We totally expect that to be the case, that this may underestimate those who are at the most problematic level,” Compton said. “We are glad that we have multiple ways to look at these problems, because any one source will have limitations.”

Data from the National Center for Health Statistics, for instance, show that the rate of drug overdose deaths in teens ages 15 to 19 U.S. climbed 19 percent from 2014 to 2015, from 772 to 658. Roughly 80 percent of the deaths were not intentional, and the rise was driven by overdoses from heroin.

The number of drug overdose deaths had tripled from 331 in 1999 to a peak of 929 in both 2007 and 2008. The number of deaths and its rates were generally stable until 2011, and declined from 2012 to 2014. These trends are markedly different from older age groups, in which the increase has largely continued since 1999, rather than exhibit the same decline that occurred among teens.

Compton noted that even teens who didn’t have addictions to opioids and were experimenting could die from experimentation.

“Even one time can be enough to be deadly,” he said.

This post originally appeared on Washington Examiner

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