Sep 16, 2022 - Health

America's fentanyl problem a growing threat for teens

Illustration of an hourglass full of pills that have almost run out.
Illustration: Victoria Ellis/Axios

America's epidemic of overdose deaths tied to fentanyl is posing a growing threat to teens — and as they return to school, officials warn they may more frequently encounter the drug disguised in unexpected forms.

Driving the news: A teenage girl died and three others were hospitalized this week after overdosing at their Hollywood high school from what they thought were Percocet pills, the L.A. Times reported.

  • And, earlier this month, the DEA issued an advisory about an emerging trend of colorful or "rainbow" fentanyl — which could look like colorful pills or sidewalk chalk — and could be used to target young people. It has already been seized in at least 18 states.

What they're saying: Teenagers "really don't know the risk of the substances they're using," says O. Trent Hall, who specializes in addiction psychiatry at Ohio State University.

  • "We're seeing fentanyl disguised as common medications for ADHD, or for pain, or for anxiety, and the pills that are being purchased look exactly like those medications," Hall tells Axios.
  • The percentage of seizures in pill form increased from 13.8% in 2018 to 29.2% in 2021, a study published in May in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found.
  • "I’d warn [my children] that illegally obtained pills can contain fentanyl, and that exposure to even a small amount can be enough to kill someone,” Joseph Palamar, lead author of the study and an associate professor at New York University Langone, told Time this week.

The big picture: The uptick in fake tablets or "dupes" is fueled by drugs pouring over the southern border from Mexican drug cartels, the Wall Street Journal reported recently.

  • With oversupply of the drugs causing the price to fall, one producer said they are developing a version meant to be 30% more potent than their typical fake oxycodone tablets, known as M30s, per the WSJ.
  • Nationwide, there have been reports of increased overdose deaths among kids. In the last few months, there have been also been reports of deaths in teens in Alabama, California, Maine, Michigan, and Texas.
  • In California, there's been a soaring death rate due to overdoses among 15 to 19-year-olds since 2012, KTLA reported.
  • In Georgia, the number of young people who died from fentanyl-laced drug overdoses spiked last year to 36, up from four the year before the pandemic, Axios' Atlanta reported.

Be smart: A study published last week in the Journal of Adolescent Health estimates a total of more than 84,000 years of life lost in 2020 — up 113% compared to 2019 — from unintentional overdoses among adolescents ages 10-19.

  • The calculation, which is the difference between the age at which a person dies and their expected remaining lifespan, puts into context the magnitude of the loss to family and society when a young person dies prematurely, says Hall, a co-author of the study.
  • Previous studies have found a sharp uptick in teen overdoses between 2019 and 2020, despite stable drug use rates among young people, attributed to more dangerous drugs.

The bottom line: "We're watching a tragedy unfold and it's time we stop watching it and start trying to stop it," Hall says.

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