Drug Overdose Deaths Rise Among US Teens

By Paul Gaita 08/22/17

Male teenagers experienced the most significant increase in death rates, according to a new CDC report.

a group of teenagers hanging out.

Back in December, Newsweek reported some positive news about a drop in drug use among teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19. That news has now been tempered by new statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that showed that the same age group has experienced a slight increase in opioid-related overdose deaths.

The CDC's report, which concerned drug overdose death rates among American teenagers between the years 1999 and 2015, underscored the pervasive nature of the opioid epidemic and the extent to which it has impacted everyone in this country.

According to the CDC report, drug overdose deaths among teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 more than doubled from 1999 to 2007, when rates rose 1.6 per 100,000 individuals to 4.2 per 100,000. That number dropped significantly between 2007 and 2014, plunging to 3.1 per 100,000 during that seven-year period, before rising slightly in 2015 to 3.7.

Male teenagers experienced the most significant increase in death rates during that period, tripling between 1999 (2.1 per 100,000) and 2007 (6.2) before dropping by about 35% through 2014, when rates steadied at 4.0, before again rising by 15% (4.6) in 2015. Rates among females remained relatively low throughout the entire timeframe of the report, rising from 1.1 per 100,000 in 1999 to 2.0 in 2004, where it remained until a two-year increase of 2.7 between 2013 and 2015. The majority of these deaths – eight in 10, or 80% - were unintentional.

The CDC classified drug overdose deaths according to the International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision, and defined them as deaths caused by heroin; natural or semisynthetic opioids (excluding heroin); methadone; synthetic opioids excluding methadone, such as fentanyl; cocaine; benzodiazepines – which include such drugs as Xanax, Valium, klonopin and Ativan - and psychostimulants. Categories were not exclusive, since some deaths involved more than one drug.

Opioid-related deaths were the leading cause of overdose deaths; figures for such overdoses rose significantly between 1999 (0.8 per 100,000) to 2007 (2.7) and remained stable until 2011. There was a slight decline (2.0) between 2012 and 2014, but ticked upwards again in 2015 to 2.4. 

The majority of these opioid-related overdoses were due to heroin use, which tripled during the study's time frame (0.3 in 1999 to 1.0 per 100,000 in 2015). Semisynthetic opioids, including fentanyl and tramadol, also experienced an increase, albeit much slighter (0.1 in 2002, the first year a reliable rate could be recorded, to 0.7 in 2015).

Health experts attributed the rise in both categories to the increase in heroin and fentanyl in the wake of limits on prescription drug use, and warned that even slight increases should be regarded as a warning sign.

"We need to keep paying attention to young people," said Katherine Keyes, a Columbia University expert on drug abuse unaffiliated with the study.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.