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Teens' Rx Drug Abuse Is Rising

But Survey Shows Overall Drug Abuse by Teens Is Declining
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 21, 2006 -- Abuse of prescription painkillers by American teens is going up despite drops in most other forms of drug use, a federally funded survey concludes.

The annual report found that 3.5% of teens reported using the narcotic painkiller OxyContin without a doctor's order in 2006, nearly 30% more than acknowledged it in 2002. This year, nearly 10% of high school seniors also reported using Vicodin, a similar painkiller. It was the highest level of use of the drug since 2004.

Researchers reported evidence of a dip in prescription narcotic use by high school seniors, but the decrease was canceled out by a rise among younger students.

"We're at the highest level of OxyContin use in eighth- and 10th-graders that we've observed," says Lloyd D. Johnston, PhD, of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. The institute conducts the study -- known as the Monitoring the Future Survey -- each year for the federal government.

The survey anonymously asks more than 48,000 teens (eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders) from 410 schools nationwide about their drug use experiences, those of their friends, and their beliefs about the dangers of substance abuse.

Positive Trends

The figures come amid relatively positive overall trends in teen drug use. Illegal usage ticked down in 2006 for most illegal drugs, including marijuana and methamphetamine. Overall, 23% fewer teens acknowledged using drugs within the past year than in 2001, officials say.

"We've almost hit the president's goal exactly," says John P. Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, referring to a goal set by President Bush in 2001 to cut teen drug use 25%.

"The benefits gained today by youths in this five-year period will stay with them for the rest of their lives," Walters says.

Still, Walters and other officials acknowledged that prescription drugs and other substances continue to pose concern. Teens' use of ecstasy, though down by about half since 2001, rose slightly between 2005 and 2006.

Walter blamed a potential "slippage" in adolescents' growing belief that illegal drugs are dangerous and can have long-term consequences for their health.

At the same time, 7% of high school seniors, and about half as many eighth-graders, said they had used over-the-counter cough medicine within the last year to get high. Most formulations contain dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant that has hallucinogenic effects at high doses.

Smoking and Drinking

Smoking and drinking have also dropped among U.S. teens since 2001, though rates of use remain far higher than for any other drugs. Six percent of eighth-grade students and 19% of 10th-grade students said they had been drunk at least once during the previous month.

Johnston says he is troubled by evidence that the steady drop in smoking has now leveled off. About one in 12 high school seniors now say they smoke daily, though the smoking rates have barely budged in younger students since 2003.

"Price is a major deterrent of smoking among kids," Johnston tells WebMD. "We don't have that continuing rise in the price that was so important" following the $206 billion settlement between 46 states and cigarette makers in 1998.

Johnston says a decrease in antismoking efforts by federal and state governments may also be contributing to stagnating youth smoking numbers.

"I hate to see that improvement stop as it seems to be doing right now," he says.

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