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Twenty Percent of High School Youth Took Prescription Drugs without Doctor's Rx

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media, June 7, 2010

One in five high-school students admits to have taken a prescription drug without a doctor's prescription, according to a new CDC survey that has implications for how physicians and hospitals assess teenage health.

The finding comes from responses of more than 16,000 students in the annual survey report Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States for 2009. This is the first year that the question about illicit prescription drug use has been asked.

The survey asked if the students had ever taken a prescription drug such as OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, Adderall, Ritalin, or Xanax without a doctor's prescription. Of those responding, 20.2% said they had one or more times, according to a statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nearly one in four white students (23%), 17.2% of Hispanic students, and 11.8% of black students answered that they had. Both male and female students had similar responses.

"We are concerned to learn that so many high school students are taking prescription drugs that were not prescribed to them," said Howell Wechsler, director the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health. "Some people may falsely believe that prescription drugs are safer than illegal drugs, yet their misuse can cause serious adverse health effects, including addition and death."

The survey found that high school students had similar rates of usage of alcohol and illegal drugs such as marijuana or cocaine. The 2009 survey found that 72% of the students said they had ever used alcohol, about 37% used marijuana, 6.4% said they had used cocaine, 4.1% used methamphetamine, and 6.7% used ecstasy.

High school students still engage in behaviors that put themselves at risk of disease or injury. Asked about their activities during the previous week, 78% had not eaten fruits and vegetables five or more times per day, and 82% were not physically active for 60 minutes daily.

However, the survey did reveal some positive trends. Fewer students said they drank soda at least once per day, (29%, down from 34% in 2007); more students said they ate fruit or drank 100% fruit juice two or more times a day (34%, up from 30% in 2005).

Fewer students said they engaged in unhealthy behaviors to lose or maintain weight, such as not eating for 24 hours or more, taking diet pills, powders or liquids or vomiting or taking laxatives.


Cheryl Clark is senior quality editor and California correspondent for HealthLeaders Media. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.
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