06-22 Opioid misuse.jpg

While illicit drug use among high schoolers is decreasing, new data shows nearly one in seven — 14 percent — has misused prescription opioids.

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey for 2017, released recently by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), shows the percentage of students who have ever used illicit drugs (such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, inhalants, hallucinogens or ecstasy) has dropped from 22.6 percent in 2007 to 14 percent in 2017.

“That’s very exciting news and I’m happy to see that,” said Ben Chandler, President and CEO of the Foundation for a Health Kentucky, on illicit drug use decreasing. “I think that tells you that the large-scale campaigns that have taken place have been relatively effective. All across the country there is local-level prevention work going on. It’s heartening to see that when we get so much bad news otherwise.”

The percentage of students who had ever misused prescription opioids differed by sex and ethnicity.

Females were more likely to misuse than males (14.4 percent to 13.4). Hispanic students (15.1 percent) were more likely to misuse than black (12.3 percent) or white students (13.5 percent).

The CDC said 2017 was the first year data was collected.

The finding is especially concerning, the report noted, because "the misuse of prescription opioids can lead to overdose as well as injection drug use, which increases the risk for HIV." 

“I think that it shows us something we already knew. We have an opioid crisis,” Chandler said. “It’s happening here in Kentucky and across the nation.”

Chandler said he wasn’t surprised by the percentage of students misusing prescription opioids. He said there are just too many prescription opiates circulating.

To help fix the issue, Chandler said there needs to be prescription disposal programs and shorter dose periods. The state legislation passed a law in 2017 that limits certain prescription painkillers to a 3-day supply.

“I think that’s a real step in the right direction,” he said. “I think we’ll see the fruits of that (legislation) in next few years.”

Student sexual behavior

The report shows there was a decline in the percentage of high school students reporting sexual activity, as well as a decline in the number reporting having had four or more sexual partners.

The 2017 percentages — 39.5 percent ever having sex and 9.7 percent having had four or more sexual partners — are the lowest since the CDC began collecting data in 1991. The rates were 47.8 percent and 14.9 percent, respectively, in 2007. 

However, a lower percentage of students who engage in sex report using condoms. The correct use of condoms helps to prevent the transmission of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and 15- to 24-year-olds account for half of all new STD infections in the U.S, the report notes.

“The health of our youth reflects the nation’s wellbeing,” said CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, M.D., in a release. “In the past decade, there have been substantial improvements in the behaviors that put students most at risk for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. However, we can’t yet declare success when so many young people are getting HIV and STDs, and experiencing disturbingly high rates of substance use, violence, and suicide.”

Other findings

Nationally, one in five students reported being bullied at school, and 1 in 10 female students and one in 28 male students reported having been physically forced to have sex, according to the report.

The report notes there were no significant improvements in those bullied at school or those forced to have sex.

Since 2009, those bullied at school has decreased from 19.9 percent to 19 percent. Those forced to have sex improved from 7.8 percent in 2007 to 7.4 percent in 2017.

The proportion of students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased to one in three. More than 7 percent of students reported having attempted suicide in 2017. 

“Today’s youth are making better decisions about their health than just a decade ago,” said Jonathan Mermin, M.D., director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, in the release. “But, some experiences, such as physical and sexual violence, are outside their control and continue at painfully high levels. Their experiences today have powerful implications for their lives tomorrow.”

The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance report is an ongoing source of data at the national, state and large urban school district level for monitoring health-related behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of mortality and morbidity among youth and adults in the U.S. For more information, visit cdc.gov.

Wendy Holdren contributed to this story.

Jonathan Greene is the editor of The Register; follow him on Twitter @jgreeneRR.

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