From the Journals

Adolescent alcohol, opioid misuse linked to risky behaviors

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Ask about alcohol use, opioid misuse, risky behavior

These newly published reports indicate the high prevalence of risky behaviors and their associations – cross-sectionally and longitudinally – with major threats to adolescent health – so asking about alcohol use, opioid misuse, and associated health risks is truly “in the lane” of clinicians, school professionals, and parents who see and care about adolescents.

At this point, I think it’s incontrovertible that clinicians should screen adolescents to learn about their physical, emotional, and behavioral health. And they should seek opportunities for professional training, skills development, and expansion of their professional networks so they are able to address – individually or collaboratively via referrals – the behavioral and psychosocial health risks of their patients.

The good news is that there is growing awareness of the importance of using validated screening tools to identify patient behavioral health risks – including those pertaining to adolescent and young adult alcohol use and opioid misuse. “Best practice” dictates that screening approaches rely on asking questions using structured tools; intuition and “just winging it” are not effective or reliable for identifying patient behavior. Forward-looking clinics and practices could be asking patients to report about health behaviors in the waiting room (on a computer tablet, for example), or even remotely (using a secure app or data collection tool) in advance of a visit. Asking should be periodic – since behaviors can change fairly rapidly among young people. The benefit is that patient-reported information can be processed in advance to cue clinician follow-up and intervention. And youth tend to share more about their behaviors when they are asked electronically, rather than face to face. Intelligent screens can provide near real-time estimation of risk – to support in-office brief intervention tailored to the risk level of a young person or to trigger follow-up.

These studies indicate that binge alcohol use and misuse of prescription opioids among adolescents are real, pervasive, and deserving of our considered attention. There is no magic bullet. However busy clinicians may have a significant role to play in identifying and addressing these problems.

Elissa Weitzman, ScD, MSc, is an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Boston, and an associate scientist based in adolescent/young adult medicine and the computational health informatics program at Boston Children’s Hospital. She was asked to comment on the articles by Vaca et al. and Bhatia et al. Dr. Weitzman said she had no relevant financial disclosures.



Binge drinking and misuse of opioids led to risky behavior during adolescence, two studies from the journal Pediatrics highlighted. And the binge drinking in high school may predict risky driving behaviors up to 4 years after high school.

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Federico E. Vaca, MD, of the developmental neurocognitive driving simulation research center at Yale University, New Haven, Conn., and colleagues examined the associations between risky driving behaviors and binge drinking of 2,785 adolescents in the nationally representative, longitudinal NEXT Generation Health Study. The researchers studied the effects of binge drinking on driving while impaired (DWI), riding with an impaired driver (RWI), blackouts, extreme binge drinking, and risky driving.

The adolescents were studied across seven waves, with Wave 1 beginning in the 2009-2010 school year (10th grade; mean age, 16 years), and data extended up to 4 years after high school. Of all adolescents enrolled, 91% completed Wave 1, 88% completed Wave 2, 86% completed Wave 3 (12th grade), 78% completed Wave 4, 79% completed Wave 5, 84% completed Wave 6, and 83% completed Wave 7 (4 years after leaving high school) of the study.

High school binge drinking predicts later risky behavior

About one-quarter of adolescents reported binge drinking in Waves 1-3, with an incidence of 27% in Wave 1, 24% in Wave 2, and 27% in Wave 3. Adolescents who reported binge drinking in Wave 3 had a higher likelihood of DWI in subsequent waves, with nearly six times higher odds in Wave 5 and more than twice as likely in Wave 7, researchers said. Binge drinking in Wave 3 also was associated with greater than four times higher odds of RWI in Wave 4, and more than two and a half times higher odds of RWI in Wave 7. Among adolescents who reported binge drinking across 3 years in high school, there was a higher likelihood of extreme binge drinking in Wave 7, and higher likelihood of risky driving after graduating.

Impact of parental knowledge of drinking

Parental knowledge of drinking and support for not drinking alcohol was associated with lower likelihood of DWI and RWI in some waves. Father monitoring knowledge of drinking in Waves 1-3 lowered the odds of DWI by 30% in Wave 5 and 20% in Wave 6, while also lowering the odds of RWI in Wave 4 and Wave 7 by 20%.

Mother knowledge of drinking in Waves 1-3 was associated with 60% lower odds of DWI in Wave 4, but did not lower odds in any wave for RWI.

Overall, parental support for not drinking lowered odds for DWI by 40% in Waves 4 and 5, and by 30% in Wave 7 while also lowering odds of RWI in Wave 4 by 20%.

The results are consistent with other studies examining risky driving behavior and binge drinking in adolescent populations, but researchers noted that “to an important but limited extent, parental practices while the teenager is in high school may protect against DWI, RWI, and blackouts as adolescents move into early adulthood.”

“Our findings are relevant to prevention programs that seek to incorporate alcohol screening with intentional inquiry about binge drinking. Moreover, our results may be instructive to programs that seek to leverage facets of parental practices to reduce health-risk contexts for youth,” Dr. Vaca and colleagues concluded. “Such prevention activities coupled with strengthening of policies and practices reducing adolescents’ access to alcohol could reduce later major alcohol-related health-risk behaviors and their consequences.”

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