Bags of fentanyl pills
Bags of fentanyl pills. Photo credit: Courtesy, Drug Enforcement Administration

The rate of overdose deaths among U.S. teenagers nearly doubled in 2020, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, according to recently published addiction research.

The rate rose another 20% in the first half of 2021 as compared to the 10 years leading up to the pandemic, the first time in recorded history that the teen drug death rate has seen such an exponential rise, said lead author Dr. Joseph Friedman, an addiction researcher and Ph.D. candidate at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.

The study is published in JAMA – the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The change is due to drug use becoming not more common, but more dangerous, he said.

“The increases are almost entirely due to illicit fentanyls, which are increasingly found in counterfeit pills,” Friedman said. “These counterfeit pills are spreading across the nation, and teens may not realize they are dangerous.”

Researchers used Centers for Disease Control and Prevention online data focused on epidemiology to calculate drug overdose deaths per 100,000 population for adolescents aged 14 to 18 years from January 2010 to June 2021.

They found 518 deaths, or a rate of 2.4 per 100,000, among that group in 2010, and 492 deaths – a steady rate of 2.36 per 100,000 – each subsequent year through 2019.

In 2020, there was a sharp increase to 954 deaths – 4.57 per 100,000 – rising to 1,146 deaths – 5.49 per 100,000 – in early 2021.

The research shows that among Black/African Americans,  Among Black/African Americans, the number of deaths rose to 24 – 0.70 per 100,000 – in 2010, 46, or 1.49 per 100,000 through 2019, 114, 3.69 per 100,000 in 2020, and 96, or 3.10 per 100,000 in 2021.

Among Latinos, there were 62 deaths – 1.38 per 100,000 in 2010, 136 deaths, or 2.68 per 100,000, through 2019, 276 deaths or 5.35 per 100,000 in 2020, and 354 deaths, 6.98 per 100,000 in 2021.

Among whites, they were 412 deaths – 3.32 per 100,000 in 2010, 281 deaths, or 2.50 per 100,000, through 2019, 521, 4.67 per 100,000, in 2020, and 604 deaths, 5.36 per 100,000 in 2021.

Fake versions of prescription drugs such as Xanax, Percocet and Vicodin, whose strength can fluctuate, also contributed to the increase in overdose deaths, Friedman noted.

“Teens urgently need to be informed about this rising danger,” Friedman said. “Accurate information about the risk of drugs needs to be presented in schools.”

Some of that information, he said, includes warnings that pills and powders pose the highest risk for overdose, as they are most likely to contain illicit forms of fentanyl. They also should be told that pills and powders can be tested for the presence of fentanyl using testing strips, which are becoming more widely available.

In addition, access to naloxone, which can reverse overdoses, is needed in schools and places frequented by teens, he said.

– Staff and wire reports