Americans Are Poisoning Themselves To Death?

Perhaps the Great Recession is finally taking its toll on America’s youth. On September 20 the National Institute of Health issued a news release about a study that examined patterns of substance abuse among people between 18 and 24 years of age from 1999 to 2008. The study was published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, and the results aren’t flattering:

  • Hospitalization rates for alcohol overdose increased 25%.
  • Hospitalization rates for drug overdoses increased 55%.
  • Hospitalization rates for drug and alcohol related overdoses increased a whopping 76%.

Yep, our future is bright.

In the paper, the authors noted that the total cost of these hospitalizations was 1.2 billion dollars, much of it on the public tab.

The study finds the biggest increases came from the use of prescription opiods, which increased an eye-popping 122% over that time (no pun intended).

Opioids are signaling molecules in the nervous system that have analgesic (pain-relieving) properties. They’re often prescribed as pain-killers and sometimes off-label as anxiety suppressants, but the feelings of sedation and euphoria they cause has given them broad crossover appeal as a past-time of America’s youth.

A separate study conducted by the Center for Disease Control in 2007 found that death rates from drug overdoses has increased fivefold since 1990, and most of the increase was due to opioid addiction.

The problem is not distributed equally among the sexes. Women do a good job of keeping their nose clean. Whereas guys………ehhh, not so much. The paper in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs didn’t differentiate between the sexes, but the CDC segmented users based on location, age, and gender.

The differences between guys and girls are clear. In every single age group men have higher addiction rates than women. The relative gap between the two is largest in the teen years and gradually gets smaller until evening out at 85 years old.

While it’s easy to agree on the problem, opinions differ on how to solve it. In the JSAD paper authors Aaron M. White, Ph.D. and Ralph W. Hingson, Sc.D suggest clinicians do extra screening for alcohol misuse. In their words this would allow troubled adolescents to “evaluate their relationship with alcohol and other drugs and make wise choices regarding future use.”

However, it’s possible the problem might be more complicated.

Regardless of what their doctors tell them, teenagers have higher levels of impulsiveness than other age groups and modulate their behavior according to their peer environment. A clinician can’t control that, and the total amount of time an addicted teen spends with his family doctor is pithy compared to the hours he spends with his friends and family.

So while it’s easy to lament all the narcotics going up our children’s noses, medical professionals and public health officials will have to think a lot harder about what to do about it. A slap on the wrist from third-party officials won’t make much of a difference.



  1. NIH Study Finds Hospitalizations Increase For Alcohol and Drug Overdoses. National Institute of Health. September 20, 2011.
  2. Bjork JM, Smith AR, Chen G, Hommer DW. Psychosocial problems and recruitment of incentive neurocircuitry: Exploring individual differences in healthy adolescents. Dev Cogn Neurosci. 2011 Oct 1;1(4):570-577. PubMed PMID: 21927631
  3. White AM, Hingson RW, Pan IJ, Yi HY. Hospitalizations for alcohol and drug overdoses in young adults ages 18-24 in the United States, 1999-2008: results from the nationwide inpatient sample. J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2011 Sep;72(5):774-86. PubMed PMID: 21906505
  4. CDC’s Issue Brief: Unintentional Drug Poisoning in the United States. Center for Disease Control. August 2010
  5. Prescription Drugs: Abuse and Addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Jonathan Bechtel

Jonathan Bechtel is the founder of Health Kismet, a green superfood powder that condenses 35 types of raw produce into a powder that can be mixed with water, juice, smoothies, or into a meal. He blogs at

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