Abuse of prescription drugs starts in high school

by Todd Neale

One high school student in five has taken a prescription drug without a doctor’s order, according to a nationwide survey.

Abuse of a prescription drug was most common among white students (23%), followed by Hispanics (17.2%) and blacks (11.8%), according to Danice Eaton, PhD, of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health in Atlanta, and colleagues.

Improper use increased steadily from ninth grade (15.1%) to 12th grade (25.8%). Girls and boys were equally likely to abuse a prescription medication.

The findings, reported in a surveillance summary that accompanied the June 4 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, came from the 2009 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey. That was the first year questions about prescription drug use were asked.

Although certain risky behaviors have decreased in recent years, the survey showed that only two of 15 of the federal government’s Healthy People 2010 goals have been reached — reducing the number of students getting into physical fights to below 32% (31.5% in 2009) and reducing the number of students riding in a car with someone who had been drinking to below 30% (28.3% in 2009).

“More effective school health programs and other policy and programmatic interventions are needed to reduce risk and improve health outcomes among youth,” Eaton and her colleagues wrote.

The national survey, conducted every two years, looks at six types of risk behaviors, those that contribute to unintentional injuries and violence, tobacco use, alcohol and other drug use, sexual behaviors that contribute to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, unhealthy dietary behaviors, and physical inactivity.

The 2009 survey indicated that in addition to prescription drug abuse, use of alcohol and illegal drugs was prevalent.

Nearly three-quarters (72.5%) of students said they had ever tried alcohol and 41.8% drank in the past 30 days.

More than one-third (36.8%) had ever smoked marijuana, including 20.8% in the past month.

Teens admitted using a number of other drugs at some point as well, including hallucinogens (8%), ecstasy (6.7%), cocaine (6.4%), methamphetamine (4.1%), heroin (2.5%), and illicit injectable drugs (2.1%).

Findings regarding nutrition were mixed.

The number of students who drank soda in the previous week decreased from 34% in 2007 to 29.2% in 2009, and the number who ate fruit or drank 100% fruit juice at least twice a day increased from 30% in 2005 to 34% in 2009.

And fewer students were trying to lose weight through unhealthy methods, such as not eating for 24 or more hours, taking diet pills, powders, or liquids, and vomiting or taking laxatives.

But problem behaviors remained, with 77.7% of students admitting they did not eat fruits and vegetables five or more times a day, and 81.6% who said they don’t get 60 minutes of physical activity every day.

Some of the other findings from the survey:

* In the month before the survey 19.5% of students had smoked cigarettes, 9.7% had driven a car after drinking, and 17.5% had carried a weapon.
* Among the 34.2% of students who were sexually active, 38.9% had not used a condom the last time they had sex.
* In the year before the survey, 13.8% of students had seriously considered suicide and 6.3% had attempted it.
* The percentage of students who were obese increased from 10.7% in 1999 to 12% in 2009.

According to the authors, the findings apply only to teens attending high school.

In addition, they wrote, the amount of under- or over-reporting could not be determined. And body mass index was calculated using self-reported height and weight, which tends to underestimate rates of obesity and overweight.

Todd Neale is a MedPage Today staff writer.

Originally published in MedPage Today. Visit MedPageToday.com for more pediatrics news.