Study: More Teens and Young Adults Sliding Down the Slippery Slope of Opioid Addiction Than Ever Before

Unfortunately, this research can’t be called surprising, but it does sound an urgent alarm. Among 18- to 25-year-olds, the number of people becoming hooked on Vicodin and Percocet spiked 37 percent between 2002 and 2014, according to a review of federal data published in the journal Addictive Behaviors.1

Among young adults 26 to 34, the rate of abuse ballooned from 11 percent to 24 percent. And the number of individuals who tried heroin at least once in the past year skyrocketed. That’s a four-fold increase among those 18 to 25 years, and a nine-fold increase among those ages 26 to 34.

So now what?

“The potential development of prescription opioid use disorder among youth and young adults represents an important and growing public health concern,” lead author Dr. Silva Martins of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health said in a news release.2

“While increases in prescription opioid use disorder might be rooted in health policy, medical practice, pharmaceutical industry interests and patient behavior, it is critical that the general public, particularly youth, are informed about the related harms and disorders that can occur when prescription opioids are used without regular medical supervision,” Martins and her colleagues warned in their study.

Previous research has shown that “nearly 80 percent of 12- to 21-year-olds who reported initiation of heroin use had previously initiated non-medical use of prescription opioids between the ages of 13 and 18,” the authors noted. “Data from Monitoring the Future have shown that late high school (12th grade) medical prescription opioid use is associated with adult onset of non-medical opioid use.”

Non-profit groups, such as NOPE Task Force and Shatterproof, have formed in recent years to bring the message of opioid dangers to young people through high school assemblies, online education and social media campaigns. Shatterproof has enjoyed several recent successes since its founding last year. In August, the Cigna Foundation granted the organization $100,000 for the second year in a row.

‘Surrender’ to Recovery Leads to Home Ownership

On the recovery community website, Bill D. shares his story of falling into the trap of heroin addiction.

“I wasn’t your typical candidate for alcoholism, cannabis-ism, prescription pill-ism, heroin-ism or whatever you got-ism,” he wrote.3 “I was on the honor roll every quarter in high school. I played sports. I was accepted to a phenomenal college. My future radiated with possibilities.”
37 percent spike in vicodin and percocet addict between 2002 2014
Fast forward a couple of years. Bill had brushes with the law, even landing on the evening news (with “my mug shot next to the newscaster’s head,” to use his words) and several other low points.

“I reached out to my mom and asked to go to treatment,” he wrote. “That night I lied to her for the last time. I asked for money for Suboxone and bought dope instead.”

But he did get treatment. “Heroin detox was brutal,” he said. “However, the pain of detox pales when I look at the life I have today.”

That life includes a girlfriend he loves and friends who care, and he even bought a house recently. “The only price I had to pay to live a life I don’t deserve was total surrender to a program of recovery,” he wrote on the Heroes page, where anyone is invited to share their inspirational story of recovery.

There is only one outcome for those who don’t seek help. An increasing number of parents are even including the real-life stories of their child’s addiction in their obituaries in the hopes of educating other parents and saving the lives of their children, according to

In their report, Martins and colleagues speculate on why today’s young people might have this idea that they are not vulnerable to opioid addiction. “(Previous research) suggests that positive media attention, which fosters an image that prescription drug use is a routine aspect of everyday life, together with an increase in the pharmaceutical industry expenditures in direct-to-consumer advertising, has led to growing confidence in the safety of using prescription drugs nonmedically. This could be worrisome given normalization of attitudes and behaviors upon exposure to mass media, especially among impressionable youths.”

1. Martins, S. et al. (2016, Aug. 30). Prescription opioid use disorder and heroin use among 12- to 34-year-olds in the United States from 2002 to 2014. Addictive Behaviors. Retrieved Nov. 3, 2016, from
2. Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. (2016, Sept. 30). Upswing in prescription opioid use disorder and heroin use among young adults. Retrieved Nov. 3, 2016, from
3. Bill D. (2014, April 30). Total surrender to a program of recovery. Heroes in Recovery. Retrieved Nov. 3, 2016, from
4. Heitz, D. (2016). Why more families are adding the word ‘addict’ to obituaries. Retrieved Nov. 3, 2016, from

Written by David Heitz

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