Research — 25 October 2016

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The number of teenagers abusing pharmaceuticals has almost doubled in recent years as young people’s use of alcohol and illicit drugs declines, new research has revealed.

Illicit drug use amongst teenagers more than halved from 2010 to 2013, to 7.6 per cent.

At the same time, the number of 14 to 19-year-olds who used medicine for non-medical purposes almost doubled in 2013, to 4.4 per cent.

Associate Professor of Australia’s National Drug Research Institute Nicole Lee analysed the data using information from the National Drug Household Survey, as well as a range of other sources such as ambulance and overdose statistics.

She said it was not yet known what was driving the increase in the misuse of pharmaceuticals, but if it was not addressed it would become a big issue.

“It is a concern particularly in the context of other drug use coming down,” Dr Lee said.

“Most people think that drugs like paracetamol and ibuprofen are fairly benign, they maybe think they’re not very harmful but they can have quite serious health consequences.

“If the trend continues, as it has in the US, then we are likely to see a lot more dependence, a lot more overdoses, a lot more ambulance and emergency department visits and the need for a lot more treatment.”

Pharmaceuticals include those which are readily available at supermarkets, as well as prescription medication.

“Not everybody is misusing these drugs to get a high, they may be misusing them for other medical purposes — for example they may be trying to get a sleep effect from using codeine,” she said.

“The pharmaceuticals may be prescribed to them or not prescribed to them, and they may combine it with alcohol or illicit drugs.”

Long-term effect serious

The long-term effects of the misuse of such drugs include dependency, health problems and the risk of overdose.

“The Victorian Ambulance Data that has been published for example, shows that non-opioid analgesics like paracetamol and ibuprofen result in more ambulance call outs than, for example, crystal meth or ice, so it’s a sizeable problem,” Dr Lee said.

“The overdose deaths associated with pharmaceutical actually outstrip the road toll in many states.”

Dr Lee said tightening regulations around the dispensing of over the counter drugs could help combat the problem, and funding for drug treatment and harm reduction needed to be a priority.

But she said schools and parents played an important role.

“We really should be talking to young people from before they start school even about pharmaceuticals and safe use of medicines, and when we give them paracetamol read the label and indicate to them that it is a medicine and it is only for special circumstances,” she said.

“Drug education in schools plays an important part in prevention and we have a much better idea of drug education programs that are effective.

“There are some that are quite ineffective and some that actually increase the interest in drugs and drug use.”

This piece by Irena Ceranic was first seen on ‘ABC News’ on October 20, 2016.

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