Increased availability of naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdose, does not result in a rise in heroin use among teens, a new study has found.
Naloxone can prevent most opioid overdose deaths if administered in a timely manner, but access to this medication remains low in some areas. Critics have argued that its easy availability could lead to an increase in adolescent drug use.
The study from researchers at Columbia University and supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, was published in the April 2023 International Journal of Drug Policy. Researchers examined naloxone access and distribution against teen lifetime heroin and injection drug use (IDU) rates in 44 states over a period of 12 years starting in 2007.
The study found that adoption of laws to increase naloxone access was not associated with a meaningful change in drug use rates. Researchers also found that increased pharmacy naloxone dispensing was associated with decreased odds of heroin use.
Over the period of the study, self-reported lifetime heroin use decreased from 2.72% to 2.27%. Self-reported lifetime IDU remained relatively stable, rising slightly from 2.48% to 2.65%.
The study used the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), a national survey on health risk behaviors among high school students, to determine lifetime heroin and IDU rates. It compared them against naloxone access law adoption and transaction data on naloxone dispensing at retail pharmacies.
The study concluded that fears that naloxone access would lead to increased teen drug use were unfounded. First author Emilie Bruzelius did note that both heroin use and IDU are often underreported due to associated stigmas. Still, the authors recommended the continuation of efforts to expand naloxone availability.
“Efforts to improve naloxone access should continue to be an urgent public health priority, including among adolescents who represent an increasingly vulnerable population at risk for fatal and nonfatal overdose,” author Emilie Bruzelius from Columbia University shared.