Story at a glance
- A new report found teen drug overdose deaths skyrocketed in 2020 and 2021.
- That’s despite rates of illicit drug use among teens hitting all-time lows.
- Fake versions of prescription drugs contributed to the rising overdose deaths.
The rate of overdose deaths among U.S. teenagers hit a staggering high the last two years, with researchers describing it as the first time teen drug deaths have seen such an exponential rise, despite rates of illicit drug use among teens at all-time lows.
Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to calculate drug overdose deaths per 100,000 population for adolescents aged 14 to 18 years old between January 2010 to June 2021.
In 2010, they found a total of 518 deaths, a rate of 2.4 per 100,000 adolescents. By 2020, deaths rose to 954, a rate of 4.57 per 100,000 and in 2021 it jumped even higher to 1,146 deaths, about 5.49 per 100,000.
Death rates varied by race and ethnicity, with researchers finding among Black people and African Americans, in 2010 there were 24 deaths per 100,000 adolescents and that grew to 114 in 2020 and 96 in 2021.
Among Latinos there were 62 deaths per 100,000 adolescents in 2010, growing to 276 in 2020 and 354 in 2021. Among white people there were 421 deaths in 2010, 521 in 2020 and 604 in 2021.
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Fake versions of prescription drugs like Xanax, Percocet and Vicodin, whose strengths can fluctuate, contributed toward the increase in overdose deaths, noted Joseph Friedman, lead author of the new study and an addiction researcher at UCLA, in a statement.
“Teens urgently need to be informed about this rising danger,” Friedman said.
“Accurate information about the risk of drugs needs to be presented in schools. Teens need to know that pills and powders are the highest risk for overdose, as they are most likely to contain illicit fentanyls. Pills and powders can be tested for the presence of fentanyls using testing strips, which are becoming more widely available.”
Friedman and his team of researchers noted that the illicit drug supply has increasingly become contaminated with fentanyls and other synthetic opioids that are illicitly manufactured.
The U.S. Drug and Enforcement Administration (DEA) describes fentanyl as a synthetic opioid typically used to treat chronic severe pain or severe pain following surgery. It’s considered a schedule II controlled substance similar to morphine—except it’s 100 times more potent.
Synthetic opioids like fentanyl have been the primary driver of overdose deaths nationally across the U.S., with the CDC finding overdoses death involving opioids rose 38 percent from 2020 to 2021.
Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl, rose 55.6 percent, appearing to be the primary driver of the increase in total drug overdose deaths in the U.S.
The DEA noted that there is no official oversight or quality control with illicit fentanyl with counterfeit pills often containing lethal doses with none of the promise drug.
In 2020, the CDC found 15 percent of high school student reported having ever used select illicit or injection drugs, like cocaine, inhalants, heroin, ecstasy and others. Another 14 percent reported misusing prescription opioids.
Teens can be especially vulnerable to illicit drugs, as Friedman noted that many may not realize they’re dangerous. In addition to education and access to naloxone, which can reverse overdoses, are needed in schools and places teens spend time.
The Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) have created a free national helpline that’s available 24/7, 365-days-a-year for treatment referral information for individuals or families facing substance use disorders.
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