Friday, December 22, 2006

Teenagers’ use of illegal drugs has declined significantly in the past five years, a new government study shows, although the study found a slight increase in teens abusing prescription painkillers and other legally available substances.

Comparing data from 2001 and 2006, the federal study found the number of teens who reported using marijuana within the past 30 days fell 25 percent, while past 30-day use of methamphetamine plunged 50 percent during the same five-year period.

Teen use of cigarettes, alcohol, steroids, cocaine, heroin and LSD were also down, in some cases dramatically, the report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found. Underage drinking is down more than a third since it peaked a decade ago. Past-month teen smoking is at an all-time low, with the biggest declines among 12th-graders.

The 32nd annual NIDA “Monitoring the Future” survey, conducted by the University of Michigan, found that 840,000 fewer adolescents used illicit drugs in 2006 than in 2001. The 23-percent decline in past 30-day usage nearly reached President Bush’s goal of reducing teens’ illicit-drug use by 25 percent during that time period.

However, officials said they were concerned by other findings in this year’s report — based on a survey of nearly 50,000 eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders from 410 public and private schools — which marked the first time “Monitoring the Future” examined the frequency of teens using over-the-counter (OTC) cough-and-cold medicines to get high.

Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, of which NIDA is a part, said the report showed that 4.2 percent of eighth-graders, 5.3 percent of 10th-graders and 6.9 percent of 12th-graders reported such misuse of nonprescription cough-and-cold medicines containing dextromethorphan (DXM), a cough suppressant, during the past 12 months. DXM — known by the slang term “dex” or “skittles” — is generally safe when taken at recommended levels. But it can cause harmful side effects, such as alterations of consciousness or mood, if taken in large amounts, health officials say.

Coupled with that, the report showed increased teen abuse of prescription painkillers, Vicodin and Oxycontin, and of stimulants including Ritalin, which is commonly prescribed for those suffering attention-deficit disorders.

Authors of the study expressed “significant concern” over the Vicodin data. Use of that drug by teens rose 0.3 percent between 2002 and 2006 and 0.6 percent just from last year. Vicodin use remained high in all three grade levels, with nearly one in 10 high-school seniors saying they had taken it in the past year.

Oxycontin use by high-school seniors dipped between 2005 and 2006 but not for students in younger grades, the report showed.

University of Michigan researcher Lloyd Johnston, lead investigator in the study, told reporters at a press conference yesterday that annual prevalence of Oxycontin use by 12th-graders averaged 4.3 percent this year, down from 5.5 percent in 2005. But the 2.6 percent annual prevalence by eighth-graders and the 3.6 percent prevalence by sophomores were the highest ever. Use among eighth-graders seems to be increasing rapidly.

“Obviously, relatively few young people are using Oxycontin; still, given the addictive potential of this strong narcotic drug, I think we should be concerned about these rates,” Mr. Johnston said.

He added: “Because most of the illegal drugs like LSD, Ecstasy, cocaine and heroin have shown considerable declines in recent years, while the misuse of prescription drugs has been growing, the latter have become a more important part of the country’s drug problems.”

Although use of marijuana also has been declining, it remains the most widely used of all illegal drugs, Mr. Johnston said.

He and others also expressed concern that eighth-graders two years in a row have shown a decreased perception of the harmfulness of Ecstasy. He said too many teens also fail to recognize the dangers posed by DXM in cough medicines.

“The survey results indicate that the messages we are sending to students about addiction and drug abuse are having an overall positive effect,” said Dr. Zerhouni. But he called the “rise in prescription-drug use among the younger grades and the intentional abuse of over-the-counter medicines … very disturbing.”

John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, urged parents to help the Bush administration’s campaign against teen drug abuse by discarding unused and unneeded drugs from their home medicine cabinets.

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