Skip to Content

Generation Rx: Millions of teens abusing unprescribed meds to get high

Generation Rx: Study finds millions of teens abusing unprescribed Rx and OTC meds to get high

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 21, 2005 -- In its 17th annual national study of teen drug abuse, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America reports that an alarming number of teenagers are abusing a variety of prescription (Rx) and over-the-counter (OTC) medications to get high. Approximately one in five teenagers has abused a prescription painkiller to get high, and one in 11 has abused OTC products, like cough medicine.

"A new category of substance abuse is emerging in America: Increasingly, teenagers are getting high through the intentional abuse of medications," said Roy Bostock, chairman of the Partnership. "For the first time, our national study finds that today's teens are more likely to have abused a prescription painkiller to get high than they are to have experimented with a variety of illicit drugs -- including Ecstasy, cocaine, crack and LSD. In other words, 'Generation Rx' has arrived."

Released today in Washington, D.C., the 2004 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS) surveyed more than 7,300 teenagers (margin of error: +/- 1.5 percent). Top-line findings from this nationally projectable tracking study show:

  • Approximately one in five teenagers (18 percent), or 4.3 million teenagers nationally, report abusing Vicodin; one in 10 teenagers (10 percent), or 2.3 million teenagers nationally, report abusing OxyContin. (Both are prescription painkillers.)
  • One in 10 teenagers (10 percent), or 2.3 million young people, has tried prescription stimulants Ritalin and/or Adderall without a doctor's order.
  • One in 11 teenagers (9 percent), or 2.2 million young people, has abused OTC cough medications intentionally to get high. Such products contain the active ingredient dextromethorphan.
  • Teen abuse of prescription and OTC medications is higher or on par with teen abuse of a variety of illicit drugs- cocaine/crack (9 percent), Ecstasy (9 percent), methamphetamine (8 percent), LSD (6 percent), ketamine (5 percent), heroin (4 percent) and GHB (4 percent).
  • Abuse of medications has penetrated teen culture: 37 percent of teens say they have close friends who have abused prescription painkillers like Vicodin, OxyContin and Tylox. Some 29 percent say the same about prescription stimulants Ritalin and Adderall. Teens often overstate friends' use; however, this measure underscores awareness and normalization of this type of substance abuse among teenagers.
  • Teens who abuse or have abused an Rx or OTC medication are, more often than not, likely to report having abused drugs such as Ecstasy and marijuana.

"Our collective challenge as public health professionals is daunting: to prevent the abuse of medications that are, by and large, essential for millions of Americans,"said Michael Maves, M.D., executive vice president and chief executive officer of the American Medical Association. "We must focus on preventing the intentional abuse of these medications, and on understanding the fine line between appropriate use and abuse. We should not demonize these otherwise beneficial medications, but rather work to change behavior."

"Adolescent abuse of prescription and over-the-counter medications represents one of the most significant developments in substance abuse trends in recent memory,"said Steve Pasierb, President and CEO of the Partnership. "Educating parents and teenagers about the risks of abusing medications will be exceptionally challenging, but it clearly must be done."

The Partnership's annual tracking study -- the largest, on-going analysis of drug-related attitudes in the country -- began measuring abuse of select medications in 2003. In the 2004 survey these questions were further refined. Data from both years confirm the significance of the Rx / OTC medicine abuse category. Going forward, the Partnership will further expand its study to include more questions in this area.

Additional research underway

Given the significant levels of Rx and OTC medicine abuse reported in the PATS study, the Partnership commissioned additional consumer research to better understand teens' awareness, knowledge and attitudes about this category of substance abuse. Researchers are probing teens' reasons for abusing Rx and OTC medications, teen access points to Rx and OTC medications and, very importantly, the degree of risk teens associate with specific medications. Results of this research will be released by early summer. Partnership researchers report that several important insights have surfaced in the early analysis of this research:

  • Close to half of all teens believe using prescription medications to get high is "much safer" than street drugs. Close to one-third say prescription painkillers are not addictive.
  • When teens were asked why prescription medicine abuse was increasing among peers, teens cited "ease of access" as a major factor. Specifically, the majority cited parents' medicine cabinets, and/or medicine cabinets in the homes of friends, as major access points.
  • Teens demonstrate a remarkable sophistication when it comes to Rx and OTC medications, and all other drugs. Teens are familiar with brand names of a wide variety of medications and accurately describe their effects.
  • One in five teens, in this coming study, report being offered a prescription painkiller to get high, suggesting Rx and OTC medicine abuse has penetrated teen culture.

Both the PATS study and the additional quantitative study will provide Partnership researchers with consumer insights critical in the development of communications strategies to address the problem. The Partnership will develop and release parent-targeted education campaigns on Rx and OTC abuse sometime later this year, as part of its "Partnering with Families" program.

Steady declines in teens abusing a variety of drugs

Overall, fewer teens are using a variety of drugs, according to the PATS study. The data report significant and sustained declines in the number of teenagers using tobacco, and noteworthy declines in the number of teens using alcohol. Since 1998, teen attitudes about marijuana -- the most widely used illicit drug -- have strengthened (i.e., kids see more risk in using the drug, and less social acceptance), explaining a steady decline in the number of kids using marijuana. In 2004, 37 percent of teens reported ever experimenting with the drug, compared to 42 percent in 1998.

The data also report a remarkable turnaround in the number of teenagers using MDMA (3-4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine, commonly referred to as Ecstasy). Since its peak in 2001, when 12 percent of teenagers reported trying the drug at least once, the data report a 25 percent decline in the number of teenagers who've used Ecstasy (from 12 percent to nine percent).

The number of teens using other illicit drugs -- crack/cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, LSD and GHB -- remains relatively stable.

Two areas of concern: More teenagers reporting using inhalants to get high, and as reported earlier in this document, teen abuse of Rx and OTC medications to get high represents a significant, emerging category of substance abuse in America. (Tracking data are not yet available for this category.)

For the first time in several years, teens report seeing/hearing fewer anti-drug ads in mass media. In 2004, 48 percent of teens reported seeing/hearing anti-drug ads daily or more often, down from 52 percent the year earlier. The downturn perhaps reflects cuts in federal funding to the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, coordinated by the Office of National Drug Control Policy in cooperation with the Partnership. The campaign buys advertising time and space in mass media to guarantee anti-drug ads reach teen audiences. Reduced funding translates into fewer ads reaching teenagers consistently. Over the years, the Partnership's data have shown a consistent correlation between high exposure to anti-drug ads and kids with stronger anti-drug attitudes and lower levels of drug use.

Also for the first time, according to the data, teenagers are more likely to report learning a lot about the risks of drugs from television commercials than they are from their parents. In 2004, 39 percent of teens reported learning a lot about the risks of drugs from television commercials. Some 30 percent reported learning a lot from parents or grandparents. "Parents can have exceptional influence on their kids' decision-making about drugs," said Pasierb. "But we've got clear challenges with this generation of parents." In February, the Partnership released a national study showing that the current generation of parents is talking less with their kids about drugs, when compared to parents just a few years ago.

[1] Conducted by Roper Public Affairs and Media for the Partnership. Survey of adolescents in grades 7 through 12. Total sample: 7,314 teenagers nationwide.

[2] For example, the data indicate teens who have abused Ritalin and/or Adderall are seven times more likely than average teens to have used Ecstasy and four times more likely to have smoked marijuana. The data show similar patterns with teens who have abused Vicodin, OxyContin and cough medicine.
Source: Partnership for a Drug-Free America

Posted: April 2005