Study finds higher rates of heroin use among county students

While a report in January warned that heroin use among adults was becoming epidemic in Snohomish County, a survey of area students indicates that experimentation with heroin even extends to middle and high schools.

Of 12th-graders in Snohomish County who participated in the Healthy Youth Survey, 5.7 percent of them reported having tried heroin at least once. That exceeds the survey’s statewide average of 3.2 percent, said Heather Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Snohomish Health District.

“It’s eye-opening,” Thomas said. “People need to be aware it’s out there. It’s important for parents to look at the data and have discussions with their children.”

Some 2.8 percent of eighth grade students and 3.6 percent of 10th-graders reported using the drug at least once.

This was the first time a question about heroin use was in the Healthy Youth Survey, which also asked nearly 12,000 area sixth-, eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders about their use of other drugs, alcohol, tobacco and electronic cigarettes. About 56 percent of all students in those grades responded to the survey last October.

The results are based on answers provided anonymously by students, so there’s no way to verify the reported heroin use. Treatment centers, however, say they are seeing heroin users in their teens.

The health district’s report in January said that heroin deaths had reached epidemic levels from 2011 through 2013, accounting for nearly one in five of the state’s heroin fatalities. No one knows why heroin fatalities spiked, although there are theories. Some suspect it could be because of new prescription requirements for narcotic pain pills, paired with a lack of treatment facilities.

Evergreen Manor in Everett has 16 publicly funded in-patient detox beds. Linda Grant, chief executive officer, said that heroin is cheap and easy to get, and patients treated there for opiate addiction increasingly include people in their teens and 20s.

The Healthy Youth Survey suggests that students are experimenting with cocaine at slightly higher rates than heroin. Three percent of eighth-graders reported trying it at least once, as did 4.5 percent of 10th-graders and 9.7 percent of 12th-graders. The percentage of seniors reporting cocaine use has dropped since 2008, from 11.8 percent.

“The fact that our high school seniors are telling us that they are using heroin and cocaine is something that we cannot ignore,” Thomas said. “Even more to the point, with one in 18 having used heroin and one in 10 having used cocaine, we now have an obligation as a community to take action. We must prevent them from a lifetime of addiction or, worse, a life lost too soon.”

Use of marijuana has remained steady or decreased in all grades in Snohomish County since its legalization, according to the health district. But 8.4 percent of 12th-graders said they had recently used marijuana on school property and 17.5 percent reported driving a car within three hours of using marijuana.

The survey also suggests increasing use of electronic cigarettes, which Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the Snohomish Health District, found troubling, as well.

E-cigarette use was reported by 9.1 percent of eighth-graders, 16.6 percent of 10th-graders and 22.1 percent of 12th-graders.

“Kids believe it’s safe,” Goldbaum said. “The marketing is sophisticated and truly targets youth.” The nicotine used in e-cigarettes often is flavored with names such as bubble gum, creamy milk chocolate and pina colada.

“If you hear there’s a bubble-gum-flavored nicotine substance out there, you’ve got to believe it’s not harmful,” Goldbaum said. Nicotine is addictive and exposure to the vapor from e-cigarettes can harm adolescent brain development and can be toxic to fetuses.

Meanwhile, sixth-, eighth- and 10th-graders in Snohomish County report that it’s harder for them to get conventional tobacco cigarettes. The number of eighth- and 10th-graders saying that they currently smoke is half of what it was six years ago, according to the health district. Some 7.2 percent of 10th-graders and 14.6 percent of 12th-graders say they smoke tobacco.

Although it is illegal to sell an e-cigarette to anyone younger than 18 in Washington, their availability online makes it difficult to enforce the law.

National data indicate that many youngsters try e-cigarettes for the first time without ever having tried tobacco, according to the state Department of Health.

E-cigarette devices can be decorated in ways to appeal to teens, such as with a Hello Kitty motif or to look like a pen so they’re harder to detect, Thomas said.

The health district is exploring a ban on use of electronic cigarettes in public places. A schedule of public meetings on the topic is expected to be set next month.

The youth survey also asked students about their use of alcohol. Binge drinking, defined as five or more alcoholic drinks in a row, has declined slightly in all four surveyed grades since the last survey in 2012. The highest levels were reported by 12th-graders, with 18.8 percent saying they currently participated in episodes of binge drinking.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

‘Out of the Shadows’

The Arlington Drug Awareness Coalition has scheduled a community drug and alcohol awareness event, “Out of the Shadows,” at 6 p.m. April 28 in the Byrnes Performing Arts Center, 18821 Crown Ridge Blvd. in Arlington.

The presentation is to include personal stories about Arlington youth who have struggled with addiction, followed by information about what drugs are being abused in the area, what addiction looks like and how to support those who are struggling.

More information on the coalition is available at www.facebook.com/arlingtonaware or by calling 360-618-6217.

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