Teen Misuse of Rx Opioids at Historic Lows

By Pat Anson, Editor

Misuse of opioid pain medication by American teenagers is at an historic low, according to a nationwide survey that also found prescription painkillers have become increasingly harder for teens to obtain.

Nearly 44,000 students in 8th, 10th or 12th grade were questioned about their drug use in the University of Michigan’s annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey. Overall, the number of teens drinking, smoking and abusing drugs is at the lowest level since the 1990’s, although marijuana use spiked upward in 2017.

While the so-called opioid epidemic continues to make national headlines, misuse of prescription painkillers by teenagers has been steadily falling for over a decade.

The survey found that 4.2% of 12th graders used “narcotics other than heroin” in the past year, down from 9.4% in 2002.

Only 35.8% of high school seniors said the drugs were easily available in the 2017 survey, compared to more than 54 percent in 2010.

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“We’re observing some of the lowest rates of opioid use that we have been monitoring through the survey. So that’s very good news,” said Norah Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "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."

The misuse of the painkiller Vicodin continues a decade long decline, falling to 2.9% of high school seniors in 2017. That’s down from 10.5% of seniors in 2003. Similar declines were reported in the misuse of OxyContin.

Marijuana use by teenagers rose by 1.3% to 24 percent in 2017, the first significant increase in seven years.

“This increase has been expected by many,” said Richard Miech, lead investigator of the study. “Historically marijuana use has gone up as adolescents see less risk of harm in using it. We’ve found that the risk adolescents see in marijuana use has been steadily going down for years to the point that it is now at the lowest level we’ve seen in four decades.”

For the first time, the survey asked students about vaping.  Nearly 28 percent of high school seniors said they had used a vaping device in 2017. A little over half said the mist they inhaled was "just flavoring," about a third said they inhaled nicotine, and 11% said they vaped marijuana or hash oil.

After years of steady decline, binge drinking appears to have hit bottom. Nearly 17 percent of 12th graders said they had five or more alcoholic drinks in a row sometime in the last two weeks. That’s a lot, but it's down from 31.5% in 1998.