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1 in 3 High School Seniors Who Misuse Prescription Opioids Turn to Heroin
  • Steven Reinberg
  • Posted October 28, 2020

1 in 3 High School Seniors Who Misuse Prescription Opioids Turn to Heroin

Among high school seniors, nearly a third of those who misuse prescription opioids use heroin by age 35, a new study shows.

"It is a very timely study given the number of adolescents and young adults who were overprescribed opioids and who are now aging into adulthood," said study author Sean Esteban McCabe, director of the Center for the Study of Drugs, Alcohol, Smoking and Health at the University of Michigan's School of Nursing.

"We need to follow these generations to assess their risk for developing later problems," he said in a university news release.

The study focused on 25 groups of high school seniors between 1976 and 2000, and followed them from age 18 to 35. McCabe's team used data from more than 11,000 individuals to arrive at its conclusion.

"There was an increase in opioid prescribing in the 1990s and 2000s that contributed to the opioid epidemic. Health professionals and the larger public health community owe it to these individuals to understand the downstream effects of overprescribing and develop effective interventions," said co-author Philip Veliz, a research assistant professor at Michigan's School of Nursing.

The researchers were surprised by the large use of heroin among the more recent group, and the findings partially explain why opioid overdoses have soared, Veliz said.

"These prevalence estimates of heroin use are very high, considering the general population annual estimates are less than 1%," McCabe said. "And anyone in the study with a history of heroin use at baseline was excluded, which makes the findings more conclusive."

Although most of prescription opioid use doesn't lead to heroin use, rates of heroin use were much greater among people who misused prescription opioids, the researchers said.

"There are several generations who were overprescribed controlled medications with high misuse potential, such as opioids," McCabe said. "Prescribing fewer opioids and the correct dosage is only one piece to the puzzle."

"The solution requires a much more comprehensive plan that includes better education, screening and interventions to reach high-risk individuals who often fly under the radar in many health care settings," McCabe said. "We all played a role in creating the opioid crisis, and we owe it to these individuals to address the problem."

The findings were published online recently in the Journal of Addiction Medicine.

More information

For more on misuse of prescription opioids, see the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention .

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