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Teens Abusing Opioids Are Getting Their Painkillers Legally

A majority of teens abusing opiate based painkillers began their addictions through legally prescribed medication from a doctor, according to a new study in the journal Pediatrics.

Researchers gathered data from 1976 through 2015 and found a correlation between painkiller abuse and previous prescriptions. Roughly eight percent of teens are currently abusing opioid medication, according to the researchers from the University of Michigan. The majority of those abusing the pills were found to have previously been prescribed opioids by a doctor, reports Live Science.

Hospitals are experiencing steep increases in the number of teens and children admitted for opioid poisoning and experts blame over-prescribed pain medications. The number of prescription pills saturating the U.S. market quadrupled since 2000, sparking the opioid epidemic and predisposing young individuals to severe addiction. Hospitalizations for opioid poisoning are up 176 percent among people ages 15 to 19 years old.

“Health professionals who prescribe opioid medications to adolescents can play an important role in reducing prescription opioid misuse,” Sean McCabe, study author and research professor at the University of Michigan, told Live Science. “We consider any rate of non-medical use of prescription opioids alarming, based on the known adverse consequences associated with this behavior.”

The majority of new heroin addicts begin with a dependence on prescription painkillers, before transitioning after building high tolerances that make the pills too expensive. Heroin use among U.S. teens more than doubled over the past 10 years. Officials with the Drug Enforcement Administration say four out of five heroin addicts started with painkillers.

“It is really an epidemic,” Christopher Emmett, a Wilkes-Barre, Penn., resident who lost his son to a drug overdose in August, told NBC News. “We went to 14 funerals of my son’s friends who died of addiction in just one year. They’re dropping like flies, every day.”

A record 33,000 Americans died from opioid-related overdoses in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioid deaths contributed to the first drop in U.S. life expectancy since 1993 and eclipsed deaths from motor vehicle accidents in 2015. Combined, heroin, fentanyl and other opiate-based painkillers account for roughly 63 percent of drug fatalities, which claimed 52,404 lives in the U.S. in 2015.

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