Research of Note for February 2005

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The percentage of American eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders who reported using illicit drugs in the previous 12 months continued a gradual decline in 2004, according to the results of the latest Monitoring the Future study. The rates were 15 percent, 31 percent and 39 percent for grades eight, 10 and 12, respectively.

The study, conducted by the University of Michigan, is an ongoing annual survey of the behaviors, attitudes and values of 50,000 youths.

Drug use among the nation’s eighth-graders has declined by one-third since 1996, to 15 percent in 2004 from 24 percent in 1996. As for 10th- and 12th-graders, this was the third year of decline. “There are now 600,000 fewer teens using drugs than there were in 2001,” John Walters, Director of National Drug Control Policy, said in a statement when the report was released last month.

Drugs showing declines include marijuana, ecstasy, amphetamines, PCP, Vicodin and steroids. There was little or no change in the use of hallucinogens, cocaine, heroin or other narcotics, tranquilizers, sedatives, or the “date rape” drugs Rohypnol and GHB.

Two drugs showed signs of increased use in at least one grade: inhalants, including glues, aerosols, butane, paint thinner and other substances, and OxyContin, the prescription narcotic pain medication.

The use of inhalants has always been highest among eighth-graders – no doubt due to the fact that the products are inexpensive, legal and easy to obtain. After a long and substantial decline since 1995 by students in all three grades, inhalant use by eighth-graders increased significantly in 2003 and again in 2004, to more than 17 percent. Use by other grade levels increased slightly. Investigators call the increases “one of the more troublesome findings this year,” and say the use of inhalants may be poised for a rebound.

Citing inhalant abuse among young people as a growing concern, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) hosted a panel discussion last month to share the latest scientific information on it. The institute also launched a companion website for parents,, and published the Inhalants Community Drug Alert Bulletin, available on the website or at (800) 729-6686.

OxyContin use by 12th-graders rose from 4 percent in 2002, to 4.5 percent in 2003, and 5 percent in 2004. The rise is statistically significant only when measured across two years. “The continued rise in OxyContin use among high school seniors … continues to concern us, particularly given the relatively high prevalence rate already attained by this highly addictive narcotic drug,” the principal investigator, Lloyd Johnston, said in a prepared statement. In comparison, the use of heroin, another addictive narcotic, by all grade levels is at 1 percent or less.

A summary of findings, data tables and figures for the 2004 Monitoring the Future study is available at Contact: Lloyd D. Johnston, principal investigator, (734) 647-1844.

‘Morning-After’ Pill Doesn’t Boost Risky Sex

A study published in the Jan. 5 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association concludes that providing teens and young women with easy access to the emergency contraceptive pill Plan B does not lead them to engage in more risky sexual behavior. That finding contradicts a key claim made by groups opposing Barr Pharmaceuticals’ second attempt to gain federal approval of over-the-counter nonprescription sales of the drug.

Last May, Steve Galson, acting director of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, rejected Barr’s initial application. The move was controversial, in part because the agency’s Nonprescription Drug Advisory Committee had voted 22-5 in favor of approval. Galson cited insufficient data on how easy access to emergency contraceptives might affect the health and sexual behavior of 11- to 15-year-old girls.

Critics charged that the agency had succumbed to pressure by social and political conservatives. Forty-nine members of Congress wrote to President Bush last spring, urging the rejection of Barr’s over-the-counter application. (See “A Fight Over Teens, a Pill and the Morning After,” May 2004.) The second application is pending.

Plan B, best taken within 24 hours of having unprotected sex, works by preventing a pregnancy rather than by ending one. But some critics compare the drug to RU-486, often dubbed the “abortion pill.”

The new study, conducted by the Center for Reproductive Health Research and Policy at the University of California at San Francisco, looked at the sexual behavior of 2,117 San Francisco-area women ages 15 to 24 who were randomly provided the drug in one of three ways. One group was given a supply of Plan B to keep at home; another could pick it up without a prescription at a local clinic; and a third could get it without a prescription at a local pharmacy.

Researchers found no indication that women in any of the three groups significantly increased unprotected sexual activity over a six-month period. The study did find that women with Plan B at home were 1.5 times more likely to use the drug after unprotected sex than were women in the other two groups.

“Women don’t change their sexual behavior when the drug is easily available,” wrote lead author Tina Raine, “but . . . they’re more likely to use it if access is easier.”

Buoyed by the findings, more than 50 advocates of nonprescription access to Plan B for women of all ages came from as far away as Florida and New York for a demonstration at FDA headquarters in Bethesda, Md., last month. Nine protestors were arrested on federal disorderly conduct charges for allegedly blocking the entrance to the agency’s offices.

Stephanie Seguin, of the Gainesville (Fla.) Area NOW (National Organization for Women) and Gainesville Women’s Liberation, said the group’s demand for a meeting with Galson was rebuffed.

A report on the study, “Direct Access to Emergency Contraception Through Pharmacies and Effect on Unintended Pregnancy and STIs,” is available online at Contact: Dr. Tina Raine-Bennett, Center for Reproductive Health Research and Policy, (415) 502-4086.