Opioid abuse in Canada and the United States has reached crisis proportions with reports saying hundreds of thousands of people in Canada alone having become opioid dependent as a result of pain medications prescribed by their physicians. Now, a study has found that for teens, as well, the path to opioid abuse most often begins with a doctor’s prescription.
Last year, Canada’s death toll from opioid overdoses hit record levels, with hundreds of unintentional overdoses, many related to the powerful drug fentanyl, an opioid said to be up to 100 times stronger than morphine. In British Columbia, where the tragedy is currently having its greatest impact, the province saw 914 deaths in 2016 alone, an 80 per cent increase on the previous year.
The causes of the crisis are many, but doctors prescribing opioids as pain-killers has been identified as a primary factor. In the US, Dr. Gary Franklin, medical director of Washington state’s Department of Labor and Industries called the situation “the worst man-made epidemic in modern medical history,” stating that because opioid use only increases with time and habituation to the drug, only half of patients who take prescription opioid painkillers like oxycodone for more than three months will ever get off them. “You come into the system with a low backache and three years later you’re dead from an overdose,” Franklin said.
A new study from the US National Institute on Drug Abuse has drawn a similar connection for teens, finding that lifetime nonmedical use of prescription opioids was “highly correlated with medical use of prescription opioids.”
The study looked at trends in the use of prescription opioids among US adolescents between the years 1976 and 2015 and found that on the one hand, both the medical and nonmedical use of opioids has been on the decline for the past few years, likely due to more careful prescribing practices from doctors.
Yet the connection between drug abuse and initial prescription by physicians also stood out as a clear warning sign. For the year 2015, for instance, eight per cent of adolescents reported abusing prescription opioids, with the majority of them having been previously prescribed the drugs, according to the study. “One consistent finding we observed over the past two decades is that the majority of nonmedical users of prescription opioids also have a history of medical use of prescription opioids,” said study author Sean McCabe, a research professor at the University of Michigan.
Another recent study echoes the claim that teen opioid use and opioid poisonings have been on the decline as of late. Also conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, researchers looked at a National Poison Data System account of 188,468 prescription opioid exposures for children, adolescents and youth under the age of 20 between the years 2000 and 2015 and found that teen opioid exposures made up 30 per cent of all reported exposures, yet the overall number of exposures was found to be on the decline, starting in 2009, with a 31 per cent drop in reported exposures for teens during that time period.