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Teen overdose deaths rose recently, largely due to fentanyl

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Drug use among teens has decreased in the past couple of years, but a new study finds that overdose deaths for this age group rose dramatically in 2020. It's the first increase in a decade. The study also zeroes in on what caused this rise in deaths. To tell us more about these findings, we are joined by NPR's health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee. Hi, Rhitu.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Hi, Daniel.

ESTRIN: This sounds really troubling. How many deaths are we talking about?

CHATTERJEE: So for a decade, you know, overdose deaths among teens didn't change that much. But going from 2019 to 2020, they nearly doubled. And we are talking about more than 950 teens who died from an overdose in 2020. And it went up again in 2021 to more than 1,100 teens. And the highest rate of deaths were for American Indian and Alaska Native youth, followed by Latinx youth. Joseph Friedman is a public health researcher at the University of California Los Angeles and the lead author of the study. And here's what he told me about these findings.

JOSEPH FRIEDMAN: This is very alarming because what we've seen in other parts of the population is that when overdose death rates start to rise, they tend to continue to do so for quite some time.

CHATTERJEE: So, you know, Friedman's concerned that this is just the beginning of this disturbing trend.

ESTRIN: Wow. So if we know that fewer teens use drugs during the pandemic, why are we seeing this big jump in deaths?

CHATTERJEE: Yeah. In short, Daniel, it's because of fentanyl. The new study found that there was a huge jump in fentanyl-related deaths the last couple of years. In fact, last year, 77% of overdose deaths in this age group were caused by fentanyl. And it's not the fentanyl in heroin or cocaine that adults commonly use. Those drugs are less popular among teens who prefer prescription pills, so prescription opioids like OxyContin or prescription amphetamines or benzodiazepines.

But teens who use these drugs often buy them from their friends or off the street. And increasingly, those drugs are counterfeit pills contaminated with fentanyl, especially in the past couple of years. And here's Dr. Nora Volkow, who directs the National Institute on Drug Abuse. And she says recent estimates suggest at least one-third of illicitly manufactured pills are contaminated with fentanyl.

NORA VOLKOW: And to the extent that you are actually consuming them, in the past it was you would just get sedated. Now you can take one benzodiazepine, one pill, and it can kill you.

CHATTERJEE: And she says she hears these heartbreaking stories from parents who say that they knew their kid used a drug occasionally, and suddenly, one night, they died.

ESTRIN: Wow, that is upsetting. How can we stop this from killing more teens?

CHATTERJEE: So Friedman says there's an urgent need to educate teens about the risk of using these pills.

FRIEDMAN: It's pretty clear that teens don't understand that many of the pills that are available right now on the street are actually counterfeit.

CHATTERJEE: And, you know, you can't really tell that a pill is laced with fentanyl just by looking at it. And I also spoke with Sheila Vakharia, who's with the advocacy group the Drug Policy Alliance. And she says young people just need more information about drugs.

SHEILA VAKHARIA: So many of our young people are so busy being taught to not use drugs that when they are exposed to them or they're surrounded by it, they actually have very little information to go off of to keep themselves or their friends safe.

CHATTERJEE: So she says, you know, they need to learn how to identify signs of an overdose, what to do if somebody overdoses. And it's really important for schools to have the medication naloxone, which reverses overdose, to be made widely available to youth, and they should be taught how to use it.

ESTRIN: Important story. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee, thank you so much.

CHATTERJEE: Thanks, Daniel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.