The first drugs abused by teens often come from the family medicine cabinet, and a new Operation UNITE program is using statistics from a University of Kentucky research study to try to change that.
The study confirms that rural teens were 26 percent more likely to abuse prescription drugs than their urban peers. There were no differences between urban and rural rates for use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and hallucinogens.
Overall, 13 percent of rural youths said they used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons, compared with 10 percent of urban youths, the study found.
"We were excited when we heard about those numbers," said Karen Kelly, director of Operation UNITE, a non-profit that combats drug addiction in Eastern Kentucky. "A lot of times in small communities, people don't think there is anything to be concerned about."
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In the study, researchers analyzed data from 17,872 participants aged 12-17 in the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Jennifer Havens, a professor of epidemiology in the University of Kentucky College of Medicine Department of Behavioral Science, led the study.
Teens "tend to be using the things that they can get out of their parents' medicine cabinet," she said. That's exactly what Operation UNITE's program — Don't Be an Accidental Drug Dealer — is aimed at combating.
The program began last week in Knox, Clay and Wolfe counties and will expand. It's a grass-roots effort that will include community meetings and public service announcements spreading the word about the potential abuse of prescriptions.
"A lot of kids think that pills are safe because they are coming from a pharmacy or from a doctor," said Kelly.
Information about rural drug use is often hard to come by. Though there are plenty of real-life examples, Havens said, there's little quantitative evidence to back up the widely held notion that prescription drugs are ravaging rural America.
"This is one of the first studies to show that in hard data," Havens said.
There are several reasons research focusing on urban drug abuse has overshadowed what is happening in rural areas, Havens said. First, most major research universities are in cities.
"I did my graduate work in Baltimore," said Havens. "There were literally research subjects right outside the door."
The isolation, the reluctance to trust strangers and stigma attached to drug use further complicate finding rural folks to participate in research. But, she said, the reason such rural research is important is having hard data on drug use rates is critical when applying for grant money to combat the problem.
For example, Havens' study — which has been released online and will be published in the March issue of the Archive of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine — shows that preventing teens from dropping out of school and increasing access to mental and physical health care can keep teens from developing drug habits.
It also shows that one of the reasons prescription drug abuse — specifically the use of opioid painkillers such as OxyContin — might be so high in rural areas is the lack of other drugs, such as heroin.
Even that supply and demand can make the drug trade more deadly in rural areas as people desperate for drugs commit other crimes to get money to buy them. Heroin, Havens said, is relatively cheap at about $10 a hit where it is readily available. A single OxyContin pill can sell on the street for $100 to $200.
Prescription drug abuse in the form of OxyContin first hit Kentucky hard around 2003, said Kelly, but there is a lot that people don't understand about the misuse of such powerful painkillers, such as OxyContin or tranquilizers or "nerve pills" such as Xanax.
Operation UNITE's hot line receives 1,400 to 1,600 calls a month for help, Kelly said. The majority are seeking help for problems with prescription drugs.
"We keep hearing it over and over again: 'I started when I was 12, 13, 14, and I thought it couldn't hurt me.'
"We have got to do a better job."