Fewer teens report using tobacco and abusing prescription drugs, but some attribute latter trend to increase in heroin use

By Melissa Patrick and Melissa Landon
Kentucky Health News

Fewer Kentucky teenagers said last year that they used prescription drugs without a doctor’s direction, or tobacco, than in the last such survey. But some addiction experts worry that prescription-drug abuse has dropped since 2010 because young people are using heroin instead.

According to a state survey of young people in 88 percent of Kentucky’s school districts, their improper use of prescription drugs has declined steadily since 2004, with the greatest decrease between 2010 and 2012.

In 2012, prescription-drug abuse among high-school seniors dropped almost a third, to 9 percent from 13.1 percent in 2010. Among sophomores, it dropped to 7.6 from 11.3 percent; among eighth graders, to 2.9 from 5.3 percent; and among sixth graders, to 0.7 from 1.8 percent.

Some feel there’s a disconcerting reason for the decline in prescription-drug abuse. “My concern is the unintended consequence is that people have switched to heroin,” Karyn Hascal, president of The Healing Place recovery program in Louisville, told Laura Ungar of The Courier-Journal. “The problem is addiction, not the drug of the day.” Hascal said The Healing Place has seen addicts who started out using other types of drugs but eventually turned to heroin as a cheaper option.

Although the survey didn’t measure heroin use among teens, it asked if any of their four best friends had used illegal drugs in the past year. The results showed a continued slow decline, to 12.2 percent and 15 percent, respectively, among high-school sophomores and seniors.

“Over the past four years we have significantly stepped our efforts to address prescription-drug abuse,” Connie Smith, manager of the Substance Abuse Prevention Branch of the state Division of Behavioral Health, said in a news release. “All of our regional prevention centers have been working very hard with their local coalitions to plan and implement effective programs to reduce illegal use of prescription drugs among youth.”

The federally funded survey measures use of drugs, tobacco and inhalants; mental health; school safety issues; and gambling. The division said 153 of the 174 school districts at the time took part, with 122,718 students participating. The survey also measures concerns such as school safety issues and gambling. The report said that almost every other area studied had lower numbers in 2012 than in 2008

The survey asked several questions about tobacco. Among high-school seniors, 25.6 percent reported smoking in the previous 30 days, down from 29.4 percent in 2010. Among sophomores, smoking dropped to 18 percent from 21.7 percent; among eighth graders, to 8.7 from 10.7; and among sixth graders, to 2 percent from 2.5 percent in 2010.

Use of smokeless tobacco by high-school students declined in 2012, after rising in each survey from 2006 to 2010. Among seniors, it fell to 15.7 percent from 17.5 percent in 2010; among sophomores, it dropped to 13.4 percent from 15.9 percent. Among younger students, an eight-year decline continued, but at a sharper rate since 2010.

Marijuana use among high-schoolers declined slightly after increasing in 2008 and 2010. The survey also showed a steady decrease in the risk that teenagers associate with occasional use of marijuana. For the full report, click here.

Kentucky Health News is an independent service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

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