DEC 11, 2015 1:28 PM PST

3/4 of High School Heroin Users Started With Prescription Opioids

WRITTEN BY: Julianne Chiaet
A new study shows non-medical use of prescription opioids contributes to teens trying heroin. Heroin use among teens has recently increased. Those previously considered at low risk - Caucasians, women, and high-income individuals - are now using heroin at unprecedented rates. There has been a nation-wide rise in heroin-related overdoses, hospital treatment admissions, and deaths.

The study is one of the first to examine the link between opioid abuse and heroin use among high school seniors in the U.S. The research was led by Joseph J. Palamar, assistant professor of Population Health at NYU Langone Medical Center.
Heroin use among teens has recently increased.
The researchers looked at how recently and frequently the students used the drugs. They also examined the correlation between the students' sociodemographic information and their drug use. The data came from Monitoring the Future (MTF), an ongoing study of the behaviors, attitudes and values of American students and young adults. The MTF annually assesses about 15,000 high school seniors in about 130 public and private schools throughout 48 states.

They found 12.4 percent of students reported they’ve abused opioids at some point in their lives. In addition, 1.2 percent reported having used heroin. As the frequency of reported lifetime opioid abuse increased, so did the odds of reported heroin use. 77.3 percent of heroin users reported abusing opioids. Nearly 25 percent of students who abused opioids more than 40 times reported having used heroin. Students who reported using opioids within the past 30-days were much more likely to have used heroin.

Black and Hispanic students were less likely to report opioid abuse or heroin use than white students. They were, however, more likely to report heroin use without having abused opioids. "This suggests that it is primarily the white students who may be transitioning from pill use to heroin,” said co-author and sociologist Pedro Mateu-Gelabert.

Female students were consistently at low odds for reporting opioid abuse and heroin use. 

"The importance and urgency of the need for prevention, treatment, and intervention cannot be emphasized enough," Mateu-Gelabert said. "Governmental officials at the local, state and federal agencies such as Health and Human Services (HHS) and now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are all desperately trying to stem the unprecedented rise in drug overdose deaths, which are now the leading cause of injury death in the U.S."

Many teens believe prescription opioids are safer than street drugs because they are government approved. “[They] don’t realize the pills can be physically addicting,” Palamar said. Further research needs to be done to find which adolescents are at highest risk for opioid abuse and heroin use, in order to explore links between the two.

The paper was published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Source: New York University, study abstract via Drug and Alcohol Dependence  
About the Author
  • Julianne (@JuliChiaet) covers health and medicine for LabRoots. Her work has been published in The Daily Beast, Scientific American, and MailOnline. While primarily a science journalist, she has also covered culture and Japanese organized crime. She is the New York Board Representative for the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA). • To read more of her writing, or to send her a message, go to
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