A new study by the University of Colorado Denver reveals that today's adolescents are abusing prescription pain medications like vicodin, valium and oxycontin at a rate 40 percent higher than previous generations.
That makes it the second most common form of illegal drug use in the U.S. after marijuana, according to Richard Miech, Ph.D., lead author of the study and professor of sociology at CU Denver.
"Prescription drug use is the next big epidemic," Miech said. "Everyone in this field has recognized that there is a big increase in the abuse of nonmedical analgesics but our study shows that it is accelerating among today's generation of adolescents."
The study was published Tuesday in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
It drew on data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a series of annual, nationally representative, cross-sectional surveys of U.S. drug use. The analysis used data from 1985 through 2009.
According to Miech, the prevalence of prescription pain medication abuse among the current generation of youth is "higher than any generation ever measured." This finding was present among subgroups of men, women, non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics.
Miech and his co-authors said a number of factors were driving this trend.
"The increasing availability of analgesics in the general population is well documented, as the total number of hydrocodone and oxycodone products prescribed legally in the U.S. increased more than fourfold from about 40 million in 1991 to nearly 180 million in 2007," the study said. "Higher prevalence of analgesics makes first-time NAU among contemporary youth easier than in the past because more homes have prescription analgesics in their medicine cabinets."
Miech said parents often model drug use behavior for their children.
"Youth who observe their parents taking analgesics as prescribed may come to the conclusion that any use of these drugs is OK and safe," he said.
Yet the consequences are often severe.
Miech said there are now more deaths due to accidental overdoses of these drugs than deaths due to overdoses of cocaine and heroin combined.
Most people who abuse prescription pain relievers report that they obtained them from family or friends.