GREENFIELD — Local teens, albeit on a small scale, are misusing prescription drugs more than the national average and are also vaping at a higher clip compared to the rest of the country.
Most notably, according to data from an annual survey conducted in schools by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments’ Partnership for Youth: 50 percent of high school seniors in Franklin County and the North Quabbin have vaped before.
On the positive side, the data shows a decrease in the local level of drug use and vaping from 2016 to 2017.
“It’s interesting because we do see youth substance use is going down across the nation, and overall a little bit steeper here than across the nation,” director of Partnership for Youth Kat Allen said. “I think there’s a lot of reasons why that’s happening, but no one can say for certain what those reasons are.”
The survey asked about heroin use, and the numbers are small.
Out of the roughly 1,600 eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders surveyed in Franklin County and North Quabbin, use of heroin dropped from the 2016 to 2017. In 2017’s survey, three of the 476 high school seniors surveyed said they had ever used heroin. That was a 58 percent decline since 2015, when this question was first asked in this manner.
The picture is less rosy with prescription drugs: although use by high school seniors declined by 56 percent since 2014, down to 3.1 percent using, the numbers remained relatively steady in the last two years. The numbers increased among eighth- and 10th-graders, roughly doubling the totals in those two grades from 2016 to 2017.
In 2017, 40 of the 1,646 students surveyed said they had used prescription narcotics in the past 30 days, with 10 of them in the eighth grade, 15 in the 10th grade and 15 in the 12th grade.
“We do see our prescription opioid use higher here than the rest of the nation ,” Allen said. “I believe those rates would be even higher than they are if we hadn’t seen these steep declines in the last 15 years.”
The national survey, conducted by the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, found that pain medication misuse dropped to 4.2 percent, among the nearly 44,000 students surveyed — declining from its peak of 9.5 percent in 2004.
“The decline in both the misuse and perceived availability of opioid medications may reflect recent public health initiatives to discourage opioid misuse to address this crisis,” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in a statement by the NIH.
While the numbers in Franklin County may not align cleanly with the national data, Evaluation Coordinator Jeanette Voas said typically the local data is comparable, if not favorable, to what’s seen in the region and across the state.
Allen said the goal will be to continue to push for evidence-based programming in the county’s schools, like the partly state-funded LifeSkills curriculum to discourage misuse of drugs. Various school districts implement the recommended programming by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments to different degrees over the years, as districts are challenged by tightening budgets.
Data is relatively new when it comes to vaping, but the initial numbers jump off the spreadsheets to professionals like Allen and those at the NIH.
Local 2017 data shows that 50 percent, or 100 high school seniors in the county have vaped, and about 21 percent of seniors said they vaped in the past 30 days when surveyed. Comparatively, nearly 1-in-3 seniors in the nation reported using some kind of vaping device in the past year.
“We certainly don’t want to see our kids vaping early on,” Allen said. “It’s not great healthy habits.”
The numbers are much lower among eighth-graders in Franklin County and North Quabbin, with 15 percent ever vaping and 5 percent, 34 students, vaping in the past 30 days.
Allen pointed to that commercially, vaping has had great success in gathering appeal with teens. People can smoke the flavoring, without any tobacco, using an electronic device, which can be customized using an app on a smartphone.
“We see corporations are clearly making their money off of kids and it gives them lifelong customers,” Allen said. “We’ve seen this with cigarettes.”
She added that locally and statewide, advocacy work is being done by herself and others in her camp to balance regulations to limit marketing and advertising.
Volkow, in the NIH statement, said the national increase in vaping is of “concern” because recent research says it could lead to typical cigarette smoking, making it, “critical that we intervene with evidence-based efforts to prevent youth from using these products.”
While Allen and Voas stayed away from labeling vaping as a “gateway” toward other substance use, they did say it raises eyebrows about future attitudes toward drugs and alcohol.
“In terms of the opioid crisis, we should be paying attention to alcohol misuse, marijuana misuse and vaping, because one addiction can lead to another and early initiation is a known risk factor,” Allen said.
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