Teen Prescription-Drug Abuse Has Tripled, Study Finds

Crackdown on Web sites offering drugs without prescriptions urged.

Parents may want to spring for a medicine-cabinet padlock, suggests a study released Thursday, because today's teens are definitely turning into Generation Rx.

More than 15 million Americans have admitted to abusing prescription drugs, according to the 214-page report released by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Of that figure, more than 2 million are under the age of 17.

Teen abuse of opioids, depressants and stimulants has more than tripled in the past 10 years. The number of Americans abusing controlled prescription drugs doubled during the same period, spiking from 7.8 million in 1992 to 15.1 million in 2003, thereby surpassing the number of cocaine, hallucinogen, inhalant and heroin users combined.

Substances most likely to be abused were opioids or pain relievers (OxyContin, Vicodin), central nervous system depressants (Valium, Xanax), stimulants (Ritalin, Adderall) and anabolic-androgenic steroids (Anadrol, Equipoise).

"Our nation is in the throes of an epidemic of controlled prescription-drug abuse and addiction," Joseph A. Califano Jr., CASA chairman and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, said in a statement. "While America has been congratulating itself in recent years on curbing increases in alcohol and illicit drug abuse, and in the decline in teen smoking, the abuse of prescription drugs has been stealthily, but sharply, rising."

Americans are popping more pills than ever, and teens are no different (see " 'Generation Rx': Teen Abuse Of Legal Drugs On The Rise"). The number of 12- to 17-year-olds who abused controlled prescription drugs rose 212 percent, the report said, while the number of adults jumped 81 percent.

"The explosion in the prescription of addictive opioids, depressants and stimulants has, for many children, made their parents' medicine cabinet a greater temptation and threat than the illegal street drug dealer," Califano said. "Parents who do not want to become inadvertent drug pushers should consider locking their medicine cabinets."

Girls were found to be more likely to abuse prescription drugs than boys (10.1 percent of girls versus 8.6 percent of boys), and teens who abused controlled prescription drugs were twice as likely to use alcohol, five times likelier to use marijuana, 12 times likelier to use heroin, and 21 times likelier to use cocaine, compared to teens who did not abuse legal drugs.

The study, which also investigated the availability of controlled prescription drugs over the Internet, found hundreds of Web sites offering drugs for sale without either requiring a prescription or proof of age. Beau, Dietl & Associates, CASA's investigatory partner, found that, as of 2004, only 6 percent of online pharmacies required a prescription, while 41 percent indicated that no prescription was needed and 4 percent didn't mention prescriptions at all. Virtually no site restricted the sale of controlled prescription drugs to children.

"Anyone with a credit card and Internet access can get their hands on these dangerous drugs," said Beau Dietl, CEO and chairman of BDA, who compared Internet pharmacies to "predators in the forest" and "vultures" feeding on America's youth.

The report concluded by calling for an "all fronts effort" to reduce abuse of controlled prescription drugs. This would include a major public health education and prevention campaign; better training of physicians and pharmacists; and new laws, with more enforcement, to close rogue Internet sites. The report also suggested that the Food and Drug Administration and pharmaceutical companies make abuse of controlled prescription drugs more difficult while offering improved treatment and conducting additional research into the problem.