Teen Abuse of Prescription Drugs on the Rise

The abuse of prescription drugs by teens is rising and parents may be partially responsible.

Easy access to drugs in the family medicine cabinet is driving the trend, according to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

“I think many parents just don’t realize how dangerous unsecured prescription drugs are to their children and their children’s friends,” said Richard Miech, PhD, of the University of Colorado in Denver.

The abuse of prescription painkillers by teens is second only to marijuana. By some estimates, there are ten times more adolescents age 12 to 17 using painkillers than there were in the 1960s.

Researchers examined data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 1985 to 2009 and looked at the use of recreational painkillers among all races, age groups, and genders.

What they discovered was that painkiller abuse was 40% greater among adolescents of all races and genders born between 1980 and 1994 than all other age groups born before them.

“The fact that the trend is present across all racial and ethnic groups highlights that this is a problem that affects everyone,” said Miech.

A recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that nearly one-third of teens using drugs for the first time chose to experiment with a prescription drug. And more than 70 percent got them from family members or acquaintances.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the prescription medications most abused by teens are opioids, such as the pain relievers OxyContin and Vicodin; central nervous system depressants like  Xanax and Valium; and stimulants such as Concerta, and Adderall.

“There is also a misguided belief that ‘medications’ are safer than illegal drugs because they are prescribed by a medical doctor,” said Gary Hale, a nonresident fellow in drug policy at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

Hale says a major contributing factor is that that doctors are prescribing more drugs for more health problems than in the past, and that Internet pharmacies often provide prescription drugs without any form of verification.

“When it comes to the abuse of pharmaceuticals, the drug war begins in the home,” he wrote in an article appearing in the Houston Chronicle. “The biggest challenge to stop drug abuse is to educate parents, children, teenagers and patients about the dangers of abusing prescription drugs.”

Experts say that parents also need to take an active role in monitoring the prescription drugs stored in the home. Among the steps they can take are keeping track of the number of pills in a bottle, the frequency of refills, and knowing exactly what drugs are being stored in the medicine cabinet. Another solution is to put prescription drugs in a locked storage device.

But in the end, the prevalence of painkillers in the home and their availability will only make the situation worse unless parents increase their awareness and intervention, according to Miech.

“Ultimately I think we need to change attitudes toward prescription drugs and, hence, their demand. It’s not an easy thing to do, but not doing it looks to be quite costly in terms of lost lives and productivity,” he said.

Authored by: Richard Lenti