Teens Over 1/3 of New Prescription Drug Abusers

By Rita Rubin
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 24, 2012 -- Efforts to lessen prescription drug misuse in the United States may be starting to pay off in young adults, but the continuing problem among teens is worrisome, a new government report shows.

The number of people aged 18 to 25 who said they had used prescription drugs for non-medical purposes in the previous month fell 14%, or from 2 million in 2010 to 1.7 million in 2011, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Non-medical use of prescription drugs among children 12 to 17 and adults 26 or older remained unchanged.

"Non-medical use of prescription drugs has been fluctuating within a narrow range for the last 10 years," SAMHSA Administrator Pamela Hyde, JD, said Monday at a press conference in Washington, D.C.

Every day for the past decade, about 6,000 Americans have started to misuse prescription drugs. "More than one-third of these new users in 2011 were under the age of 18 when they first used, and that is a concern."

The data come from the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted annually by SAMHSA. About 70,000 Americans age 12 and older participated, making the survey a "prime source" of information about substance abuse and mental illness, both public health issues, Hyde said.

Heroin Use Rising

Some people who misused prescription pain relievers might be turning instead to heroin because it is cheaper, said "drug czar" Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

In 2011, an estimated 178,000 Americans ages 12 and older used heroin for the first time within the past year. While not significantly different from the 2009 and 2010 estimates, it was a big increase from the 90,000 to 108,000 seen during 2005 to 2007, which Kerlikowske called "a troubling picture."

In 2011, an estimated 20.6 million Americans, or 8% of the population age 12 or older, met the criteria for substance dependence or abuse in the past year, down from 22.2 million in 2010.

The number who met the criteria for alcohol dependence or abuse alone was 14.1 million, compared to 3.9 million for illegal drugs alone.

Marijuana Most-Used Illegal Drug

Marijuana continues to be the most commonly used illegal drug. In 2011, 7% of Americans were users of marijuana, compared to 5.8% in 2007.

But rates of drinking, binge drinking, and heavy drinking among underage people continued to decline, as did underage tobacco and cigarette use, the survey shows.

SAMHSA released the data during National Recovery Month "to underscore that people can and do recover ... from addiction and mental illness," Hyde said.

"Addiction is a disease," Kerlikowske said. "It's not a moral failing. It can be treated."

Help Is Available, but Little Used

While non-medical use of prescription drugs has remained fairly stable since 2002, "people are increasingly reaching out to get the help they need," Hyde said.

The estimated number of Americans receiving specialty treatment for a problem with non-medical pain-relievers more than doubled from 199,000 in 2002 to 438,000 in 2011.

However, that's still just a dent. Little more than 10% of Americans aged 12 and older who were classified as needing specialty treatment for a substance use problem received it, according to the 2011 SAMHSA survey.

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SOURCES: Pamela Hyde JD, administrator, U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Gil Kerlikowske, director, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. SAMHSA: "2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health."

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