Teens Turn Corner in Opioid Crisis, Abuse at All-Time Low

BETHESDA, Md. (CN) – As the United States ramps up its battle against opioid abuse, an annual survey of teen drug use revealed historic lows Thursday when it comes to painkillers.

Opioid-overdose rates remain high among adults, but the 2017 Monitoring the Future survey reported that fewer teens than ever are abusing pain medication.

“For example, past-year misuse of the opioid pain reliever Vicodin among high school seniors dropped to its lowest point since the survey began measuring it in 2002, and it is now at just 2 percent,” the National Institute on Drug Abuse said Thursday in a statement. “This compares to last year’s 2.9 percent, and reflects a long-term decline from a peak of 10.5 percent in 2003.”

Led by Mexican-born scientist Nora Volkow, the National Institute on Drug Abuse is a division of the National Institutes of Health.

Since 1975, the institute has been conducting an annual survey, with help from the University of Michigan, to measure how teens report their use of and attitudes toward drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.

For decades, the survey monitored 12th graders only. Eighth and 10th graders were added to the survey in 1991. This year’s survey was conducted on 43,703 students from 360 public and private schools.

Volkow was cautious about what the significance of this year’s opioid-abuse findings.

“The decline in both the misuse and perceived availability of opioid medications may reflect recent public health initiatives to discourage opioid misuse to address this crisis,” Volkow said in a statement. “However, with each new class of teens entering the challenging years of middle and high school, we must remain vigilant in our prevention efforts targeting young people, the adults who nurture and influence them, and the health care providers who treat them.”

Misuse of the prescription opioid Oxycontin by high school seniors peaked at 5.5 percent in 2005, but this year’s survey found a historic low of 2.7 percent.

Heroin and methamphetamine use is not widely reported — less than 0.5 percent — and the researchers found that misuse of “narcotics other than heroin” by 12th graders had dropped significantly in the past year to 4.2 percent. Those numbers peaked in 2004 at 9.5 percent.

“Interestingly, teens also think these drugs are not as easy to get as they used to be,” according to a statement on the survey from the institute. “Only 35.8 percent of 12th graders said they were easily available in the 2017 survey, compared to more than 54 percent in 2010.”

Meanwhile 23.3 percent of 10th graders called it easy to get tranquilizers, up from 20.5 percent last year.

This year’s survey also found a decline in cigarettes and hookah use, but about a third of 12th graders reported having used some kind of vaping device.

“It is important to note that some research suggests that many teens do not actually know what is in the device they are using, and even if they read the label, not all labeling is consistent or accurate,” the institute emphasized.

Nearly 52 percent of 12th graders said “just flavoring,” according to the survey, when asked what they thought they were inhaling the last time they vaped.

The next biggest group, 32.8 percent, reported “nicotine,” raising red flags for researchers.

“We are especially concerned because the survey shows that some of the teens using these devices are first-time nicotine users,” Volkow said. “Recent research suggests that some of them could move on to regular cigarette smoking, so it is critical that we intervene with evidence-based efforts to prevent youth from using these products.”

This year 79.8 percent of eighth graders reported that they disapprove of regularly vaping nicotine, but the number dropped to 71.8 percent among 12th graders.

More than 1 in 10 of 12th graders surveyed reported that they had vaped with nicotine in the past month, and about 1 in 20 reported using marijuana in their devices.

While daily smoking has dropped, daily marijuana use among 12th graders has remained relatively consistent for the past decade, the survey found.

Among the three grade years combined, marijuana use ticked up slightly in 2017 to 23.9 percent, from 22.6 percent last year, but the researchers note that the 2015 rate was 23.7 percent.

“The survey indicates that significantly fewer teens now disapprove of regular marijuana use, with 64.7 percent of 12th graders voicing disapproval, compared to 68.5 percent last year,” according to a statement from the institute.

Another shift in marijuana attitudes is apparent in the 14.1 percent of 12th graders who saw “great risk” in smoking marijuana occasionally. Researchers say this number represents “a staggering drop from 40.6 percent in 1991,” but that last year’s rate of 17.1 percent was similar to the rate of 18.1 percent when the survey was started in 1975.

Regional bias could play a role here. Researchers found that “high school seniors in states with medical marijuana laws are more likely to have vaped marijuana and consumed marijuana edibles than their counterparts without such laws.”

The survey also studied inhalants, noting that this is the “one category of drug use that is typically higher among younger students.”

Though the rate of inhalant use among eighth graders was at 3.8 percent in 2016, it is back up this year to 2015 levels, measured at 4.7 percent.

Inhalant use peaked in 1995 when 12.8 percent of eighth graders had reported using an inhalant to get high that year.

“Overall, illicit drug use other than marijuana and inhalants, remains the lowest in the history of the survey in all three grades, with 13.3 percent of 12th graders reporting past year use, compared to 9.4 percent of 10th graders and 5.8 percent of eighth graders,” according to the institute’s statement on the survey.

George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said the findings about binge drinking may signal that activists have more work to do when it comes to preventative efforts.

“While binge drinking among eighth, 10th, and 12th grade students remains well below the levels seen a decade ago, the downward trend in binge drinking appears to have slowed somewhat in recent years,” Koob said in a statement.

Researchers found that cocaine use peaked among teens in 1999 at 6.2 percent of 12th graders; steroid use among this group peaked at 2.5 percent in 2004; and LSD peaked in 1996 at 8.8 percent.

While 11.3 percent of 12th graders reported using synthetic marijuana products like K2 and Spice five years ago, that number dropped in 2017 to 3.7 percent.

There was a significant change, however, in how eighth graders view these drugs. “In 2017, 23 percent said trying it [K2/Spice] once or twice would put users at great risk, compared to 27.5 percent in 2016,” the institute reported.

Ritalin misuse is at a near-record low of 1.3 percent, but the survey found that misuse of Adderall by 12th graders ranked in at 5.5 percent this year. While stable as compared with last year, the Adderall numbers represent “a significant drop for this age group from five years ago when misuse peaked at 7.6 percent.”

The survey has been measuring hookah smoking since 2010 and found that the trend had dropped in 2017 for the second year in a row. While seniors reported having smoked hookah at a rate of 22.9 percent in 2014, that number was down to 13 percent last year and just 10.1 percent in 2017.

Cigars have been included in the survey since 2010. About 23 percent of seniors reported having smoked cigars that year, but the number sank to 13.3 percent in 2017.

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