The use of prescription opioids for recreational purposes or for other non-medical reasons has grown over the past two decades. Among teenagers, there are many who mistakenly believe that prescription drugs offer a safer high than street drugs, and opioids have become popular communal offerings at parties. The drugs, often obtained from a forgotten pill bottle in a medicine cabinet at home, are just as dangerous as street drugs.
A study appearing in the journal Addiction analyzed whether teenagers who use prescription opioids for non-medical purposes continue to use drugs as they reach adulthood. There has been ample research examining the substance use of alcohol-consuming teens and marijuana-smoking teens as they reach adulthood, but there has been little recording of how prescription drugs are consumed through the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Likewise, the studies conducted previously have provided a cross-sectional view of prescription painkiller use among this population, giving experts only a one-time snapshot of the problem. The new study is based on a longitudinal design, following one group of individuals as they transition to adulthood.
In its introduction, the study notes that the U.S. is a major consumer of prescription painkillers. Americans consume 80 percent of the world’s opioids, while the U.S. represents only five percent of the world’s population. In addition, 99 percent of world’s hydrocodone is consumed in the U.S.
Among Americans, the heaviest non-medical use of prescription opioids occurs among those between the ages of 18 and 25. In 2010, there were 2 million people over the age of 12 who had used prescription opioids for non-medical purposes. This is more than any other drug type, except marijuana.
The researchers sought to investigate non-medical use of prescription opioid patterns as subjects transitioned to adulthood from adolescence, as well as measure individual characteristics and substance use-related behavior.
The study used nationally-representative samples of high school seniors in the U.S. and followed them through several waves, conducted every two years. The data was collected through self-administered questionnaires with high school seniors and young adults. The participants consisted of 27,268 high school seniors during the years 1976 through 2005.
The researchers found that 11.6 percent of all participants in at least one of the four waves reported that they had participated in non-medical use of prescription opioids in the previous 12 months. The highest rate of use was among participants in the first wave, while they were high school seniors. Use seemed to diminish across the four waves.
The results indicate that although most teens who use prescription opioids for non-medical purposes do so during adolescence and then discontinue the practice by adulthood, approximately one-third will continue to use them into adulthood.
These participants also had an increased risk of other types of substance use behaviors when they reached the ages of 23 and 24.
The findings indicate that there may be a need for increased awareness about the addictive nature of prescription opioid medications, as well as the continued risk of additional substance use after using prescription opioids for non-medical purposes.
Parents need to be aware of and communicate the risks of prescription drug misuse with their children. In addition, family medications should be kept locked up, with pills monitored carefully to reduce the risk of use for non-medical purposes.