Adolescents are abusing prescription painkillers like vicodin, valium and oxycontin at a rate 40 percent higher than previous generations, according to a new study.
“Prescription drug use is the next big epidemic,” said Richard Miech, PhD, lead author of the study and professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Denver. “Everyone in this field has recognized that there is a big increase in the abuse of nonmedical analgesics but our study shows that it is accelerating among today’s generation of adolescents.”
The study, which is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, draws on data compiled from 1985 to 2009 by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
According to Miech, prescription drug abuse is the second most common form of illegal drug use by youths in the U.S. and is “higher than any generation ever measured.” He said a number of factors were driving the abuse of prescription painkillers.
“The increasing availability of analgesics in the general population is well documented, as the total number of hydrocodone and oxycodone products prescribed legally in the U.S. increased more than fourfold from about 40 million in 1991 to nearly 180 million in 2007,” the study said. “Higher prevalence of analgesics makes first-time NAU (nonmedical analgesic use) among contemporary youth easier than in the past because more homes have prescription analgesics in their medicine cabinets.”
Miech said children often model their drug use behavior after their parents.
“Youth who observe their parents taking analgesics as prescribed may come to the conclusion that any use of these drugs is OK and safe,” he said.
Most people who abuse prescription pain relievers obtain them from family or friends.
“While most people recognize the dangers of leaving a loaded gun lying around the house, what few people realize is that far more people die as a result of unsecured prescription medications,” said Miech.
According to the study:
- Nonmedical analgesic use accounted for a 129% increase in emergency room visits between 2004 and 2009.
- Between 1997 and 2007, there was a 500% increase in the number of Americans seeking treatment for prescription opioid dependency.
- Prescription drug abuse led to a threefold increase in accidental overdose deaths from the 1990s to 2007.
“These results suggest that current policies and interventions are not yet effective enough to counter the factors that have increased nonmedical analgesic use among U.S. youth and the general population,” Miech said. “It is critical that we devise a strategy to deal with an epidemic that shows little sign of ebbing.”