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Survey Reveals Rx Drug Abuse by Teens

Study Shows Many High School Students Use Ritalin, Xanax, or OxyContin Without a Prescription

By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Laura J. Martin, MD

June 3, 2010 -- Just over one in five high school students in the U.S. admits to having taken a prescription drug without a doctor's prescription, the CDC says in its National Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

Last year was the first time the survey, which has been conducted every other year since 1991, has assessed prescription drug abuse among high school students. The CDC says it found that 20.2% of high school students said they had taken a drug such as Ritalin, Xanax, or OxyContin without having a doctor's prescription.

The survey of more than 16,000 youths found that:

  • Prescription drug abuse was most common among white students, at 23%, followed by Hispanics at 17% and African-Americans at 12%.
  • Prescription drug abuse was most common among seniors (26%) and least common among freshmen (15%).
  • There was no difference in prescription drug abuse by sex -- 20% for both male and female students.

"We are concerned to learn that so many high school students are taking prescription drugs that were not prescribed to them," Howell Wechsler, EdD, MPH, director of the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health, says in a news release. "Some people may falsely believe that prescription drugs are safer than illegal drugs, yet their misuse can cause serious adverse health effects, including addiction and death."

Drug and Alcohol Abuse

The survey asked a number of questions related to drug and alcohol use in its 2009 tally.

It found that:

  • 72% of high school students said they had used alcohol.
  • 37% said they had used marijuana.
  • 6.4% said they had used cocaine.
  • 4.1% said they had used methamphetamine.
  • 6.7% said they had used ecstasy.
  • 2.5% had used heroin.
  • 8% had used hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD or mescaline.

Those percentages were similar to those found in 2007.

Other answers revealed what CDC called "encouraging trends" in nutrition-related behaviors in recent years. For example, in 2009:

  • 29% said they drank soda at least once daily that year, down from 34% in 2007.
  • 34% said they ate fruit or drank 100% fruit juice two or more times per day in 2009, up from 30% in 2005.
  • 11% said they went without food for 24 hours to lose weight or keep from gaining weight in 2009, down from 13% in 2001.
  • 5% said they had taken diet pills, powders, or liquids for weight reasons in 2009, compared to 9% in 2001.
  • 4% said they had vomited or taken laxatives to control weight in 2009, down slightly from 6% in 2003.

Risky Teen Behavior

The survey found that many high school students engage in behaviors that increase their likelihood for the leading causes of death among young people between 10 and 24. It found that in the 30 days prior to being asked:

  • 9.7% of high school students said they rarely or never wore a seat belt when riding in a car driven by someone else.
  • 9.7% had driven a car or other vehicle one or more times when they had been drinking alcohol. The prevalence for drinking while driving was higher among males (11.6%) than females (7.6%) and higher among white males (12.7%) than black males (8.7%) and Hispanic males (11%); overall, 15.4% of 12th grade students admitted to drinking while driving.
  • 28.3% admitted to riding in a car or other vehicle that had been driven by someone who had been drinking alcohol.
  • 17% said they had carried a weapon.
  • 41.8% had drunk alcohol and 20.8% had smoked marijuana.

The survey also showed that many high school students engage in behaviors that are associated with the leading causes of death among adults 25 and over. In 2009:

  • 19.5% of high school students had smoked cigarettes during the 30 days before the survey.
  • 77.7% had not eaten fruits and vegetables five or more times a day in the seven-day period before the survey.
  • On all seven days before being surveyed, 29.2% had drunk sodas at least once daily; 81.6% had not been physically active for at least an hour.
  • One-third of the students attended physical education classes daily, but 12% were still obese.

The study said that since 1991, the prevalence of many health-risk behaviors among high school students had decreased, but that many continue to engage in activities or behaviors that place them at risk for the leading causes of death and sickness.

The researchers conclude that their findings indicate a need for monitoring of behaviors of high school students.

SOURCES: News release, CDC.

CDC: "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance -- United States, 2009."

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