Why Is the Teen Drug Overdose Rate Rising Again?

The number of American teens to die of a drug overdose leapt by almost a fifth in 2015 after seven years of decline, a study by the National Center for Health Statistics has found. The jump in fatalities was driven by heroin and synthetic opioid use and by an increasing number of deaths among teenage girls.

Deaths among teenagers represent a tiny portion of drug overdose deaths nationally – less than 2%.

The report comes just as the Trump administration struggles to craft a plan to fight an opioid epidemic that claimed more than 52,000 lives in 2015.

“We wanted to document that in this age group there had been a decline [in deaths],” said Sally Curtin, lead author of the study. “The trends were unique for this age group. But, once again, it did increase again between 2014 and 2015.”

The report looked at the rate of overdose deaths for teens aged 15-19 between 1999 and 2015. Researchers found the rate of teens who died from a drug overdose dropped 26% between 2007 and 2014. Among boys, the death rate fell even more – by one-third.

But in 2015, the rate of overdoses among American teens increased by almost one-fifth. That year, 772 teens died of drug overdoses. The number of deaths in 2014 was 658.

While the rate of teen boys overdosing dropped dramatically in the last decade, the rate of overdoses among girls held steady and then increased in the last two years.

For the better part of a decade, even as drug overdose rates nationally have soared, a declining number of teens have died of drug overdoses. Indeed, fewer teens reported even trying drugs. A 40-year-running, nationally representative survey called Monitoring the Future recently recorded the lowest rates of drug, alcohol and tobacco use among middle and high school students since the 1990s.

The trend prompted researchers to question whether smartphones might be replacing the inclination of previous generations of teens to abuse drugs.

Curtin cautioned that it was too early to sound alarms about a potential trend of teen deaths with just one year of data. But the larger trends are ominous. Researchers found that the rate of overdose from synthetic opioids has increased sixfold since 2002, while heroin death rates have tripled.

Traci Green, a professor at Brown University School of Medicine who studied the drug use habits of college-aged Rhode Islanders, said that the study reflects “a very messy use environment” in which heroin may be tainted with the synthetic opioid fentanyl, fentanyl may be pressed into illegal pills, and users may mix drugs such as opioids and benzodiazepines (typically used to treat anxiety).

“It is of course very upsetting and worth thinking about what is happening with our young people – your young men and your young women,” Green said. Deaths among “young women, we have known for a long time, happen for different reasons and present differently”.

While overdose deaths among boys were still falling in 2013, overdose deaths among teen girls started to climb. Between 2013 and 2015, the number of teen girls dying of overdoses increased 35%. A parallel increase of 15% from 2014 to 2015 was recorded among boys. While the majority of overdoses were accidental, girls were more than twice as likely to have intentionally killed themselves.

The report comes as the Trump administration has given conflicting signals about how it intends to address the crisis. Recently, Trump blamed lower numbers of drug prosecutions for the epidemic, and promised to prosecute more drug cases. He also recalled First Lady Nancy Reagan’s 1980s-era “Just Say No” to drugs slogan.

“The best way to prevent drug addiction and overdose is to prevent people from abusing drugs in the first place, talking to youth and telling them – no good, really bad for you in every way,” Trump said. “But if they don’t start, it will never be a problem.”

Last week, Trump announced an intention to declare a national state of emergency to address the opioid epidemic. A state of emergency generally allows administration’s to cut through red tape and access emergency funding, but it is unclear what exact actions the White House might take.


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