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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Columbia Reports Skipping College Makes Young People More Likely to Abuse Pain Pills

Non-medical use of prescription opioids is any self-reported use of prescription pain relievers that were not prescribed or that the respondent took only to experience the feeling they provided.

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[Photo: Dr. Silvia S. Martins]

Among non-college-attending young adults with at least a high school degree, 13.1 percent reported using prescription opioids for non-medical reasons. The figure rose slightly to 13.2 percent for those who did not graduate from high school, and declined to 11.3 percent among college attendees.

The relationship between educational attainment and prescription drug use disorder was seen to a greater extent in women: young women who completed high school but were not enrolled in college were at a significantly greater risk of opioid disorder than their college-attending counterparts, while the difference between male college students and males with a high school diploma/GED for past-year opioid disorder was negligible.

Until this study, little was known about nonmedical use of prescription drugs among non-college-attending young adults in the United States. Approximately 70 percent of all U.S. young adults enroll in some form of college education, but around 30 percent do not.

“Our findings clearly show there is a need for young adult prevention and intervention programs to target nonmedical prescription drug use beyond college campuses,” said Dr. Silvia S. Martins, Mailman School of Public Health associate professor of epidemiology.

While a large proportion of young adults, ages 18 to 22, are prescribed opiates, non-medical use of opioids is second only to marijuana as the most prevalent form of illegal drug use among young adults.

“This age group is particularly vulnerable to the development of adverse substance using patterns, due in part to the process of identity formation that emerges at this developmental stage,” noted Dr. Martins, first author of the study.