Prescription Opioid Misuse in Young Adults Falls to Record Levels

A new annual survey report by the University of Michigan shows that opioid misuse in young adults has fallen to a new record low level in 2021 since its peak in 2006. Now just about 1.7% of young adults misuse prescription opioids. However, the study found that marijuana and hallucinogen use has increased in young adults. Similarly, alcohol use remains quite common. Thus, the study shows a shift in the substance abuse landscape. Misuse of prescription opioids has fallen to the record lowest level in young adults in the US. In the year 2021, the lowest number of young adults abused prescription opioids since 1975, a survey found. But, of course, this does not mean that substance use disorder has become less severe. It also does not mean that opioid overdose-related deaths have declined. 


Here it is important to note that opioid addiction treatment plays a crucial role in addressing the opioid epidemic. Prescription opioids, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, can be highly addictive and contribute to opioid misuse and overdose-related deaths. Despite a decrease in prescription opioid misuse, opioid overdose-related deaths continue to rise. It is clear that opioid addiction treatment is essential in helping individuals overcome their addiction and reduce the harm caused by opioids. The findings of a significant decline in prescription opioid misuse by young adults are encouraging, as it suggests that proper prescribing practices by doctors are not fueling opioid addiction. These findings were published by the Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan in their Monitoring the Future Panel Study annual report on National data on substance use among adults ages 19 to 60, 1976-2021.


As per this new study, now only about 1.7% of young adults are abusing prescription opioids, which they generally describe as “narcotics other than heroin.” This is a massive decline from a peak of about 9% in 2006. Moreover, it means that most adults who are prescribed opioids are using them responsibly.  The MFT survey and CDC data confirm that prescription opioid misuse has been declining. However, the opioid overdose epidemic continues mainly due to illicitly procured fentanyl and other opioids. One of the reasons for such a decline in opioid misuse has been a significant decline in opioid prescriptions by doctors. Market data shows that prescriptions of opioids have also fallen to half since their peak in the early 2000s. However, the picture is not as rosy as it may sound. Though prescription opioid misuse is declining consistently, the use of illicit opioids is not declining. Even worse, the misuse of many other substances is increasing. Thus, now more young adults are abusing marijuana and hallucinogens, compared to the year 2000.


Not only that, but the MFT survey also found other causes of concern, like alcohol misuse is not showing any signs of significant decline. Similarly, vaping is gaining momentum. Though people may not be smoking cigarettes, they are now vaping nicotine more frequently. These findings show that the drug landscape is shifting fast. It shows that pattern of drug misuse is changing fast. It means that now doctors need to focus on the ill effects of marijuana and hallucinogens misuse. They also need to focus more on other drugs, like stimulants, that continue to cause significant mortality. Further, alcohol use disorder still remains a significant problem. It appears that though heavy drinking has been declining in the last few years, things changed in 2021. It appears that the Covid-19 pandemic caused a significant increase in alcohol consumption.


By Gurpreet Singh Padda, MD, MBA, MHP

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