College Freshmen See Prescription Drug Misuse More Risky Than Alcohol and Pot

WEDNESDAY Sept. 3, 2008 -- Freshman college students think the occasional use of prescription drugs for non-medicinal purposes poses a greater risk to their health than smoking pot or knocking back five drinks every weekend, a new study indicates.

But cocaine is perceived as far more dangerous than any of those habits, the series of surveys revealed. And the researchers noted that students generally prone to engaging in attention-seeking behavior -- along with those who simply don't view unauthorized prescription drug use with much alarm -- are at the greatest risk for abusing prescription painkillers and stimulants.

"The important point here is that risk perception is very important in determining whether or not a person is going to use non-medicinal prescription drugs", said study author Amelia Arria, associate director of research with the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland. "And the ones who use these drugs don't perceive the high risk as often."

"However, the anecdote that's out there that everyone is using these things because they think it's safe is not the case, in general or among college kids," she added. "A lot of these students perceive a risk, and not a lot are using them. It's just that among the very small population who are taking these drugs, there is less of a likelihood that they perceive any risk."

The study was sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and is described by the research team as the first to explore college student views of the dangers of non-medicinal prescription drug use. The findings were published in the September issue of Prevention Science.

The authors noted that as recently as in 2005, among people of all ages, the non-medicinal use of painkillers and stimulants was associated with more than 175,000 visits to the emergency room.

And in 2007, a Partnership for a Drug-Free America survey of teenagers and their parents indicated that more than half of those teens that had tried such drugs viewed them as safer than so-called "street drugs."

To specifically gauge college student perceptions regarding non-medicinal use of prescription drugs, Arria and her colleagues analyzed data collected by the ongoing "College Life Study".

Between 2004 and 2006, just over 1,250 first-year undergraduate college students were interviewed to assess their inclinations toward attention-seeking behavior; their drug use history; and the relative degree to which they perceived prescription drugs (both analgesics and stimulants), alcohol, marijuana and cocaine to be harmful.

Six months later, the participants -- all of whom attended a "large public university in the mid-Atlantic region" that the authors described as ethnically diverse -- completed a Web-based follow-up survey. Six months after that, a second in-person interview was conducted.

While approximately a quarter of all the students expressed the view that occasional non-medicinal prescription drug use involves little or no risk, just over a quarter said they thought that such use of stimulants and analgesics entails a "great risk."

This risk perception fell far short of the danger the students attributed to the occasional use of cocaine, which more than 72 percent said involved similar "great risk."

However, unauthorized prescription drug use was thought to be more risky than smoking marijuana or drinking five or more alcoholic beverages each weekend -- each of which was described as similarly risky by approximately 7 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

When honing in on those students who said they had had an opportunity to use unauthorized prescription drugs, two out of three said they viewed such behavior as risky to some degree.

In sum, the authors concluded that -- contrary to common anecdotal evidence -- most students share the view that non-prescribed stimulant and analgesic use is moderately or highly risky.

Although ethnicity was generally unrelated to risk perceptions, the researchers noted that prior non-medical use of prescription drugs was linked to a relatively low concern that such behavior might prove harmful.

Those students who expressed such low concern were found to be about 10 times as likely to have used stimulants not prescribed for them in the prior year, when compared with those who perceived non-medicinal drug use as highly harmful.

Those who perceived non-medical prescription drug use as safe were found to be more likely to engage in such use regardless of how driven (or not driven) they were toward seeking out attention, sensation and excitement.

However, those who viewed such use as highly harmful but were at the same time characterized as "high sensation-seekers" were not as dissuaded from such drug use as were similar-thinking students who expressed less interest in novel or dangerous experiences.

"But what we're talking about here is not rocket science," said Arria. "Using a prescription drug without a prescription is risky behavior. And for most students, the more we can do to accurately convey this fact, the better we'll be at dealing with the problem."

"This kind of prescription drug use represents a serious hazard that is greatly underestimated by college-age youth and young adults, and potentially can represent a major public health problem even greater than it is now," said Dr. Marc Galanter, director of the division of alcoholism and drug abuse in the department of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. "So, it's very important that college-aged students -- and for that matter older adults -- be as well-informed and educated of this serious risk as possible."

More information

For more on youth and non-medicinal prescription drug use, visit The Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

Posted: September 2008


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