Teen opioid use from 1976 to 2015

The prevalence of nonmedical use of opioids among US adolescents strongly correlated to medical use across 40 years of Monitoring the Future data. Declines in nonmedical use from 2013 to 2015 clearly coincided with declines in prescribed use. Prescription opioids include drugs like Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet, Demerol, morphine, and codeine. The findings were published by Sean McCabe and colleagues online in Pediatrics in March 2017.


Nonmedical use (without a prescription or with a lapsed or other person’s prescription) followed a trajectory of prevalence typically about 5 to 8 percentage points lower than that of medical use. Prevalence of opioid use including both medical and nonmedical use ranged from 16.5% to 24% over the years. The majority of teens who engaged in nonmedical use had a prior prescription for opioids. This correlation was much stronger for male than female adolescents. Other research found that men were more likely to get nonmedical opioids from their peers, whereas women moreso from family members. In addition, men were more likely to use nonmedical opioids to get high and women to get pain relief.


Medical and nonmedical use was more prevalent among white teens than black teens. Prior research has shown racial disparities in receiving prescription opioids. A 2005 study in Michigan found that pharmacies in zip codes with over 70% white population, compared to over 70% minority population, had 54 times higher odds of carrying sufficient opioid analgesics. Black teens were more likely than whites to use opioids nonmedically for pain relief. Medical and nonmedical use of opioids may generally be on the rise for black adolescents, with some decline from 2014 to 2015.


The findings are based on cross-sectional data from 40 years of nationally representative, independent cohorts of high school seniors surveyed each year from 1976 to 2015 in about 135 schools across the US. Specific schools stay in the study no more than one or two years. The base questions for medical and nonmedical opioid use remained the same since 1976, though some examples of opioids listed in the questions changed in 2002 as certain drugs aged out and others came on the market.


Find Trends in medical and nonmedical use of prescription opioids among US adolescents: 1976–2015 in Pediatrics online.


Related MTF articles:

Adolescent context of exposure to prescription opioids and substance use disorder symptoms at age 35: A national longitudinal study

Non-medical use of prescription opioids during the transition to adulthood: A multi-cohort national longitudinal study

Prescription opioids in adolescence and future opioid misuse

Reasons for drug use among American youth by consumption level, gender, and race/ethnicity: 1976–2005