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Teens raiding medicine chest

Survey indicates regular abuse of prescription drugs

WASHINGTON -- Federal officials are concerned that teenagers are abusing prescription medications and over-the-counter cold remedies even as their overall illegal drug use continued a decade-long decline this year, according to a government survey released yesterday.

While surveys suggest illegal drug use by teenagers has fallen 23 percent since 2001, their use of prescription narcotics, tranquilizers, and other medicines remains at relatively high levels, government investigators said.

Researchers for the first time asked whether teens were using cough or cold medicines to get high, and found reason for concern there, too. Such over-the-counter medicines often contain the cough-suppressant dextromethorphan, which in high doses alters mood and consciousness, and can cause brain damage or even death, officials said.

About 1 in 14 12th-graders said they had taken such medicines to get high in the past year, according to the survey. Among eighth-graders, the figure was 1 in 25 .

"This is now an area of drug abuse that we need to pay more attention to," said Lloyd Johnston, a University of Michigan researcher who led the annual "Monitoring the Future" survey for the federal government. "My guess is that young people do not understand the dangers of abusing these drugs."

Prescription drugs also were a problem. After rising steadily since 2002, the percent of 12th-graders who said they had used the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin in the past year fell from 5.5 percent to 4.3 percent, a figure officials consider unacceptable. Use of another popular narcotic, Vicodin, has held largely steady since 2002, with 9.7 percent of 12th-graders, 7 percent of 10th-graders, and 3 percent of eighth-graders saying they had used it to get high in the last year.

"If there is one thing that every adult can do today to help protect young people against prescription drugs," said John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, "it is go to your medicine cabinet, take those prescription drugs you are finished using and throw them away. If you have teens in your house, remove this hazard today."

Walters said that despite such concerns, the overall news from the survey was good, with continued long-term declines in the use of marijuana and alcohol by teens.

For example, about 32 percent of high school seniors said they had used marijuana in the last year, the lowest figure since the 31 percent recorded in 1994. Regarding alcohol, about 30 percent of seniors said they had been drunk in the month prior to taking the survey, down from a 15-year high of 34 percent in 1997. Among eighth-graders, about 6 percent said they had been drunk in the last month, compared with about 10 percent in 1996.

The annual government-funded survey, in its 32d year, logged the experiences of 48,500 eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-grade students in 410 public and private schools nationwide.

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