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Disturbing News About Teen Prescription Drug Abuse

May 5, 2013  |  Falmouth Enterprise

By Dr. Michael Bihari

Several recent reports underscore the growing problem with teen abuse of prescribed narcotic pain killers and stimulants used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Teen Misuse and Abuse of Prescription Drugs:
Up 33 Percent Since 2008

Survey results released on April 23 by the MetLife Foundation and The Partnership at Drugfree.org confirm that one in four teenagers has misused or abused a prescription (Rx) drug at least once in their lifetime – a 33 percent increase over the past five years.

The study also found disturbing data on teen misuse or abuse of prescription stimulants. One in eight teens (13 percent) now reports that they have taken the stimulants Ritalin or Adderall when it was not prescribed for them, at least once in their lifetime.

Parents, Grandparents, and Caregivers Contributing to the Problem

Part of the problem with teen medicine abuse are the lax attitudes and beliefs of parents and caregivers. According to the report, nearly one-third of parents say they believe that prescribed stimulants such as Ritalin or Adderall, normally prescribed for ADHD, can improve their teen's school performance even if the teen does not have ADHD.

Parents are not effectively communicating the dangers of Rx medicine misuse and abuse to their kids, nor are they safeguarding their medications at home and disposing of unused medications properly.

In fact, 70 percent of teens who abuse Rx medicine get it from a family member or friend.

Survey Results

The survey, known as the Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS), documents that the misuse and abuse of Rx medicine has become a normalized behavior among teens.

According to the study:

  • One in four teens reports having misused or abused a prescription drug at least once in their lifetime, which translates to about 5 million teens, a 33 percent increase over a five-year period.
  • Almost one in four teens say their parents don't care as much if they are caught using Rx drugs without a doctor's prescription, compared to getting caught with illegal drugs.
  • Of those kids who said they abused Rx medications, one in five has done so before age 14.
  • More than a quarter of teens mistakenly believe that misusing and abusing prescription drugs is safer than using street drugs.
  • One-third of teens say they believe "it's okay to use prescription drugs that were not prescribed to them to deal with an injury, illness or physical pain."

Study Confirms Significant Increase in Teen Abuse of Stimulants Ritalin and Adderall

Stimulants, medications that enhance brain activity, are commonly prescribed to treat health conditions including ADHD and obesity. The misuse and abuse of Ritalin and Adderall is one of the main reasons for the overall increase in teen medicine abuse. The study found:

  • One in eight teens (about 2.7 million) now reports having misused or abused the Rx stimulants Ritalin or Adderall at least once in their lifetime.
  • 9 percent of teens (about 1.9 million) report having misused or abused the Rx stimulants Ritalin or Adderall in the past year and 6 percent of teens (1.3 million) report abuse of Ritalin or Adderall in the past month.
  • One in four teens believes that prescription drugs can be used as a study aid.

Heroin Use on the Rise in Suburbs Across the Country

An equally disturbing related issue is the significant increase in the use of heroin in suburbs and more rural areas nationwide. According to an article published on April 25 in USA Today: "As prescription painkillers become more difficult to obtain and abuse, a growing number of people addicted to these drugs are switching to heroin."

Heroin is becoming more popular in part because it is cheap. On Cape Cod the "street" cost of one 80-milligram OxyContin is between $60 to $100 while heroin costs considerably less for a multiple-dose supply. OxyContin abuse has also started to decline because the pills have been remade to make them more difficult to crush and snort.

Some Words for Parents

The Partnership for Drug Free Kids puts it best: "Parents fear drugs like cocaine or heroin and want to protect their kids. But the truth is that when misused and abused, medicines – especially stimulants and opioids – can be every bit as dangerous and harmful as those illicit street drugs. Medicine abuse is one of the most significant and preventable adolescent health problems facing our families today. What's worse is that kids who begin using at an early age are more likely to struggle with substance use disorders when compared to those who might start using after the teenage years. As parents and caring adults, we need to take definitive action to address the risks that intentional medicine abuse poses to the lives and the long-term health of our teens."


Drug Free: Read the full Partnership Attitude Tracking Study.

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