The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a troubling report on Wednesday. After years of steady decline, fatal overdoses among Americans aged 15 to 19 rose in 2015 over the previous year. Unfortunately, it's not clear what caused the change.
Since around 2008, overdoses have been much less common among adolescents and young adults than among older people. According to the Associated Press, tens of thousands of adults over 19 suffer fatal overdoses every year. The number for those between 15 and 19 has been between 700 and 800 annually. Moreover, overdose deaths have been growing every year among adults over 19.
CDC researchers have been at a loss to explain why overdoses among young people began to fall after 2008. The rate of overdose deaths between 2012 and 2014 reached a low of 3 deaths per 100,000 people aged 15 to 19. In 2015, that rate rose to 3.7 per 100,000 -- up from 3.1 the previous year.
According to the CDC, adolescent and young-adult males were responsible for the decline. They account for around two-thirds of all overdose deaths in the age group, and their death rate fell by about a third during the years 2012 to 2014. The death rate among girls remained steady during those years.
In 2015, the overdose death rate among boys jumped to 4.6 per 100,000 from just 4 per 100,000 in 2014. The rate among girls rose from 2.2 per 100,000 in 2014 to 2.7 in 2015 -- the highest overdose death rate among younger females since 1979 or earlier.
The decline may be related to young people spending more time using smartphones or social media, as the gains in the overdose rate appear to track other behavioral gains. Drug use is down among those 15 to 19, along with smoking, drinking and other risky behaviors.
The increase in overdose deaths, however, is likely to be due to newer, more lethal opioids such as fentanyl becoming widely available.
"If the drugs are more potent, your chances of it (drug use) being fatal have perhaps increased," said the lead CDC researcher.
Drug abuse is a serious health issue in addition to a legal one. With young people being affected more directly in the opioid epidemic, it's time to try new strategies to reduce risky drug use. Arrest and incarceration simply may not be effective at reducing overdose deaths.