05/16/2012 04:10 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

Rx Drugs a Growing Problem Among Teenagers

The most dangerous drugs may be much closer to home than you think. In fact, they may already be in your home. You may be worried about your teenager's relationship with drugs, but this is probably a good time to start talking to your younger children, too.

Teenagers are most likely to start abusing prescription pain relievers in the middle of high school, according a Michigan State University study.

The study, published last week in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, drew on almost 120,000 answers from 12-21 year olds to the 2004-2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Researchers found approximately 1 in 60 of those surveyed started taking painkillers to get high or for other off-label uses. One in 30-40 were 16 years old when they began.

The results are challenging the belief that teenagers are older, perhaps high school seniors or college freshmen, when they are likely to begin abusing painkillers.

"Popular press has made it about older kids," said Michigan State Professor James C. Anthony, who supervised the study.

The findings also come on the heels of last month's Centers for Disease Control report on prescription opioid pain relievers -- these include oxycodone, methadone, and hydrocodone-- which found such drugs now cause more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined.

Studies such as these are signs we must reevaluate how and when we teach children about the dangers of prescription pain relievers. If teenagers are reaching for the pill bottle at younger ages, should these findings change our approach to drug education in our schools?

Unfortunately, drugs like these are relatively easy to get. Maybe you had knee surgery and forgot to throw away your extra pills. Or perhaps your teenager had his wisdom teeth taken out, and his dentist prescribed something for the pain. It's not unusual to have medications like these in your medicine cabinet, and it's not difficult for your child to find them.

The study has convinced some that children should begin attending drug education programs sooner rather than later.

"It's too little, too late if we wait," Anthony said.

Illinois requires children grades K-12 to attend health-education classes, which include lessons on drug and alcohol prevention, said a representative for Chicago Public Schools. While principals choose the specific programs for their students, the Chicago Board of Education recommends a curriculum that draws on scientific data and helps children develop emotional learning and social skills.

The Prevention Partnership, Inc. operates drug-education programs in public elementary and high schools in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. The organization works closely with the Austin community and uses the latest data on drug use to develop a curriculum, said president and CEO Albert Orsello.

These programs typically begin in 7th and 8th grade.

"When we look at the developmental stages of youth, we know that junior high school is a critical stage when key decision are being made by our youth," Orsello said. Still he agreed kids should start going to these classes when they're younger: "Ideally second to third grade," he said.

And if they don't already, programs should also include information on the dangers of prescription pain relievers in addition to illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

The Prevention Partnership is gearing up to propose a new education program to a major drugstore chain, Orsello said. Like its current programs, this would combine lessons on self-esteem, communication and problem solving with information on prescription drugs.

So is this how to stop a growing problem in its tracks?

Unfortunately, there is no single solution for such a complex problem. No one or "single" person or organization can be counted on to fix it. Of course, researchers must continue to publish statistics on drug abuse. And schools and governments can refine education programs and design new curricula to reflect those facts.

The simplest way to help? When you talk to your kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, mention prescription painkillers as well -- what they are, why you have them and why they're off-limits.

There may be no immediate answers, but there are many significant steps we can still take.

"It is a systems approach and a community initiative," Orsello said. "One sector of the community can't be expected to solve the problem.

For more by Alexandra Pisano, click here.

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