National Study Shows 1 in 5 Teens Abuses Prescription Drugs

National Study Shows 1 in 5 Teens Abuses Prescription Drugs

Several recent reports released by health officials and local governments throughout the country have revealed an alarming increase in prescription drug abuse among the American population, with particular concern upon the younger generation. Now, a national study conducted by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) based on its National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) can attest to this epidemic. The study—conducted every other year, the last year investigated being 2009—shows that one in five teenagers today abuses prescription medications that are not prescribed to them.

The CDC sent out questionnaires to over 158 schools across the country, with 16,460 student participants responding. The YRBS surveys students in grades 9–12 on their health-risk behaviors, including unintentional injury or violence; tobacco use; alcohol consumption; substance abuse; sexual activity that involved unintended pregnancy, violence, or disease; unhealthy dietary practices; and physical inactivity. This year’s YRBS was the first in its history to include prescription medications as a substance of abuse in its questionnaire, and is the first national survey from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to specifically pole teenagers on their activity related to prescription drugs.

Participants were asked if they had ever consumed prescription drugs such as Percocet, OxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax, Adderall, or Ritalin without a doctor’s prescription. Based on the results, 20.2% of participants admitted to having illicitly taken a prescription medication one or more times in their lifetime. White students were more likely than any other demographic group in the survey to abuse prescription drugs (23% of all white participants). Following were Hispanic students with 17.2% and black students with 11.8% of their respective demographics. Students were more likely to abuse prescription drugs as they progressed in age: twelfth grade students were more likely to abuse (25.8%) than eleventh grade students (22.7%), tenth grade students (18.2%), and ninth grade students (15.1%). There was no significant disparity among male and female genders regarding use, however white females were more likely than non-white females to abuse (23.3% of white females vs. 16.6% of Hispanic females and 10.3% of black females) and white males were more likely than non-white males to abuse (22.8% of white males vs. 17.8% Hispanic males and 13.3% of black males).

These statistics are evidence of the growing misconception that prescription drugs are somehow safer to use than illicit ‘street drugs.’ Even though these drugs are prescribed medications for legal use, they can be just as toxic and detrimental to one’s health if misused and can potentially lead to addiction, overdose, and death. Both parents and children may believe that no harm is being done by taking these drugs since they are not illegally distributed and sold in some dark alley. Prescription drugs are the most easily accessible drugs for teenagers to get their hands on. Teenagers can swipe prescription drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinets to get high or self-medicate, and there are also substantial reports of high school students having ‘pill parties’ in which partiers bring whatever prescription drugs they can obtain and share them with friends. While rates of adolescent illicit substance abuse may seem unchanged over the last decade, prescription drug abuse is disturbingly high among this age group and continues to rapidly increase.

Concerning other substances of abuse, statistics among teenagers in the 2009 survey were similar to 2007. Regarding overall use, 72.5% of high school students reported they had used alcohol; 37% reported they had used marijuana; 8% reported they had used hallucinogenics such as LSD or mescaline; 6.7% reported they had used ecstasy; 6.4% reported they had used cocaine; 4.1% reported they had used amphetamine/methamphetamine; and 2.5% reported they had used heroin.

Prescription drug abuse is now more prevalent that heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine abuse combined. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Drug Abuse Warning Network estimates that an average of 195 emergency hospital visits per day (or 71,175 per year) nationwide relate to prescription drug abuse (including prescription and nonprescription pain relievers, prescription narcotic pain relievers, benzodiazepines, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and ADHD medications) among individuals ages 12–17. This estimated average exceeds the expected averages of teenage emergency hospital visits related to cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, amphetamines/methamphetamines, and inhalants combined. The CDC hopes that its new report will create awareness among parents, health care providers, and community leaders and encourage them to promote safety and responsibility for the future generation.


Find relief in recovery. Life gets better with addiction treatment.

Call our experts today.