Fatal overdoses have increased among teens, UCLA researchers say

Fatal drug overdoses among American teenagers have more than doubled in frequency in recent years, even as those in this age group have become less likely to use illegal drugs, researchers from UCLA and elsewhere in a recently published analysis.

The findings underscore that teens are at serious risk from the types of drugs circulating in the United States, including the powerful opioid fentanyl and other synthetic opioids and benzodiazepines, said UCLA addiction researcher Joseph Friedman. and lead author of the study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

“Ultimately, the drug supply is becoming a toxic mess,” Friedman said.

Drug use among teens isn’t getting more common, Friedman said, but it’s getting much more dangerous. Teenagers were more isolated from the dangers of fentanyl, as they generally did not experiment with the types of drugs that fentanyl was added to in the past. This is no longer the case as the synthetic opioid appears in counterfeit pills, he said.

Fewer teens are experimenting with drugs, but those who do “have a much higher risk of overdose death due to the spread of counterfeit pills that look like Percocet and OxyContin or Xanax, but are actually illicit fentanyl” , did he declare.

Many teens mistakenly believe pills are a safer way to experiment with drugs, not realizing they could be taking fake fentanyl-containing pills that can vary in potency, said Morgan Godvin, co-author of the new study and member of Multnomah County in Oregon. Local Public Safety Coordinating Council.

“The West Coast has been hit very hard by the shift from black tar heroin to counterfeit pills,” Godvin said. These fake pills may be intentionally purchased by adults, she said, but “the ripple effect is that these pills fall into the hands of teenagers who don’t realize they’re fentanyl.” .

Counterfeit pills have appeared in the United States in California and Arizona, but are increasingly being found across the country, said Bryce Pardo, associate director of the Rand Drug Policy Research Center. Some users may be looking for fentanyl in pill form, but fake pills are particularly risky for first-time or casual drug users, he said.

“It’s especially concerning for people who buy non-opioids like benzos,” who haven’t developed an opioid tolerance and may end up overdosing on fentanyl, said Pardo, who did not participate. in the study.

Friedman said that based on available records going back decades, this marks the first time there has been such an increase in fatal overdoses among adolescentscalling it “totally unprecedented”.

The team of researchers used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to calculate overdose death rates among 14- to 18-year-olds, tracking them from January 2010 to June 2021.

The drug overdose death rate in this age group was generally stable for a decade, then nearly doubled between 2019 and 2020 and continued to increase in early 2021, reaching a rate of 5.49 deaths per 100. 000 teenagers, they found.

The increase in the death rate occurred even as teenagers became less likely to report drug use. In the year before the COVID-19 pandemic began, less than a third of sophomore high school students reported using illegal drugs in the previous year; last year, the number fell below 19%, according to surveys from the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study.

The peak rate of overdose deaths was linked to more deaths involving illegal fentanyl and other synthetic drugs, with fentanyl being identified in more than 77% of fatal teen overdoses in the first half of 2021, the researchers found. Native American and Alaska Native teens were most at risk of overdose death, followed by Latino teens.

Godvin said teens need to know about the growing danger of fake pills, which would require “a complete overhaul of drug education.” The findings also underscore the need to improve teens’ access to naloxone, a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses, and test strips to detect fentanyl, she said.

In their analysis, the researchers cautioned that the overdose trends revealed by the study did not take into account the possible role of suicidal thoughts, social isolation and other factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The research was funded by UCLA’s Medical Scientist Education Program, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Korein Foundation.

Los Angeles Times

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