Painkillers Like Vicodin and Oxycontin Linked To Spike In Teen Heroin Use

Painkillers and narcotics such as Oxycontin and Vicodin may be more convincingly taking on the role that was once attributed to marijuana in the War on Drugs: a gateway to harder drugs like heroin.

Recreational use of painkillers has soared in recent years among teenagers. These narcotics serve as a sometimes easier-to-access initiation to the world of opiates, which can lead to some of the most addictive controlled substances -- such as heroin, according to a recent study.

Oxycontin painkillers vicodin drugs make you want more
Youth using heroin more than ever may be because of painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin growing in popularity for recreational use. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

With teens raiding their parent's medicine cabinets for painkillers, use of narcotics like Vicodin and Oxycontin have spread like wildfire across high school. Data from the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey collected from 2009-2013 found that, among more than 67,000 students polled, 12.4 percent reported that they had taken painkillers for nonmedical purposes in their lives. Around 1.2 percent of participants reported having used heroin.

The study's author, Joseph J. Palamar, PhD, noted that among the group who took painkillers, the possibility of later indulging in heroin use was much higher.

"As frequency of lifetime nonmedical opioid use increased, so too did the odds for reporting heroin use, with over three-quarters (77.3%) of heroin users reporting lifetime nonmedical opioid use. Recent (30-day) nonmedical opioid use was a robust risk factor for heroin use and almost a quarter (23.2%) of students who reported using opioids ≥40 times reported lifetime heroin use."

Of course, it's possible that those who move on to heroin were simply more likely to use drugs in the first place, but Palamar noted that many teenagers who started out using painkillers recreationally do not see the immediate harm of the drug. What may seem like a relatively safe form of altering consciousness can actually be the beginning of addiction to opiates, he says.

"Any nonmedical use of opioids can be risky, but special attention needs to be given to adolescents who use more frequently... A teen may take [painkillers like] Oxy a couple of times and remain unscathed, but a lot of teens don't realize these pills can be physically addicting. A lot of teens don't trust warnings about the harm prescription opioids can cause because they're taught that using any drug — even marijuana — even once — will ruin their life forever."

Because narcotics like Vicodin and Oxycontin come FDA-approved, teens are even less frightened by their possible negative effects, says Palamar. Many of them don't realize that the process of addiction to painkillers also makes one more and more dependent on opiates, which can eventually move them along to more pervasive tastes.

"Teens experimenting with pills need to look at all of these people around them becoming addicted to–and dying from heroin. Most of these people started on pills and felt they had no choice but to move onto heroin. Targeting this group may prevent future heroin initiation, and decrease the troubling trend nation-wide in opiate-related deaths."
The trend that Palamar speaks of has pushed opiates to the leading cause of injury-related deaths in the United States, according to co-author Pedro Mateu-Gelabert, PhD. Painkiller addiction to something like Vicodin and Oxycontin could be a sign calling for early intervention.
"The importance and urgency of the need for prevention, treatment, and intervention cannot be emphasized enough. Governmental officials at the local, state and federal agencies such as Health and Human Services (HHS) and now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are all desperately trying to stem the unprecedented rise in drug overdose deaths, which are now the leading cause of injury death in the U.S."
Painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin linked to hard drugs
Teens meddling in painkillers could be early warning sign of a later problem with heroin. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Prescriptions for painkillers like Vicodin and Oxycontin have continued to mount significantly since 1999. Both the amount of narcotics prescribed and the related deaths have quadrupled since then, reported the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC).

[Image via Spencer Platt/Getty Images]