The abuse of prescription painkillers by American teenagers has fallen sharply in the last year, according to a nationwide survey that also found teenage use of alcohol and cigarettes at their lowest levels since 1975.
The annual survey by the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study tracked substance use by over 41,000 students in the 8th, 10th and 12th grades at 377 public and private schools
Teenage abuse of narcotic pain relievers reached its peak in 2009, when 9.5% of high school seniors reported using them without medical supervision. Opioid abuse among 12th graders fell to 7 percent in 2013 and to 6 percent in 2014. Students say the drugs are increasingly difficult to obtain.
“It’s not as much progress as we might like to see, but at least the number of students using these dangerous prescription drugs is finally declining,” said Lloyd Johnston, the study’s principal investigator
The abuse of one specific opioid pain reliever, OxyContin, declined in all three grades. The 2014 reports of use in the past 12 months stand at 1% (8th grade), 3% (10th grade) and 3.3% (12th grade).
Past year use of the opioid pain reliever Vicodin showed a significant five-year drop, with 4.8% percent of high school seniors using Vicodin for non-medical reasons, half of what it was just five years ago, at 9.7 percent.
Marijuana use, after five years of increasing among teens, fell slightly in 2014, with use in the prior 12 months declining from 26% to 24% for the three grades combined.
Daily or near-daily use of marijuana use remains quite high. About one in every 17 high school seniors in 2014 (5.8%) uses marijuana daily.
The abuse of over-the-counter cough and cold medicines by teens has been falling since 2006 and declined significantly again in 2014 to 3.2% for all three grades combined.
Teenage use of illegal drugs remained essentially unchanged in 2014, including some particularly dangerous ones like heroin, crack, methamphetamine and crystal meth.
Other drugs for which teenage use remained unchanged include Ritalin and Adderall — both stimulants used to treat ADHD — as well as LSD, inhalants, powder cocaine, tranquilizers, sedatives and anabolic steroids. However, most of these drugs are now well below their recent peak levels of use according to the investigators.
“In sum, there is a lot of good news in this year’s results, but the problems of teen substance use and abuse are still far from going away,” Johnston said. “We see a cyclical pattern in the 40 years of observations made with this study. When things are much improved is when the country is most likely to take its eye off the ball, as happened in the early 1990s, and fail to deter the incoming generation of young people from using drugs, including new drugs that inevitably come along.”
All three grades showed a decline in the number of students reporting alcohol use in the past 12 months, from 43% to 41%.
Binge drinking — consuming five or more drinks in a row — fell to 12% for the three grades combined. This statistic is down from a peak of 22% in 1997.
Cigarette use also reached an historic low among teens, with 8% smoking in 2014 – compared to a peak of 28% in 1997.
“The importance of this major decline in smoking for the health and longevity of this generation of young people cannot be overstated,” Johnston said.