Easy Access Blamed for Youths' Increased Heroin Use

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Heroin use among high school students has jumped sharply in the past five years, as the narcotic has become easier to acquire and as more teenagers sniff it in the false belief that that method is safer than injection, a study released last week concludes.

While heroin use among adolescents is still relatively low, the proportion of 12th graders who reported using the highly addictive drug doubled from 0.9 percent in 1990 to 1.8 percent in 1996, according to the study published this month in the journal Pediatrics.

The rate climbed even higher last year--to 2.1 percent, according to Richard H. Schwartz, a pediatrician at the Inova Hospital for Children in Falls Church, Va., who reviewed data from the National Institutes on Drug Abuse and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency for the report.

Overall, the age at which people use heroin is getting younger, the report says. The average age of a heroin user was 27 in 1988; by 1995, it had dropped to 19.

Dr. Schwartz said one reason for the dramatic increase in the drug's popularity among adolescents in the 1990s is that it is cheaper and easier for many middle-class, suburban teenagers to purchase than a decade ago. "It's sold and freely available in the suburbs," he said. "You don't have to go into the inner city to get it."

In addition, the fact that the drug no longer requires injection by needle appeals to teenagers, he said. They perceive sniffing or snorting heroin as less dangerous than "shooting up," which put users at risk for exposure to the virus that causes AIDS, he said.

The troubling health effects of heroin and its highly addictive nature should make parents and educators take action despite the small numbers of children experimenting with it, Dr. Schwartz said.

Counting on Corn Flakes: Breakfast cereals are the main source of vitamins and minerals for many American children, but munching on corn flakes or Wheaties alone isn't the best diet for preventing disease, according to a recent study.

While fortified cereals are not unhealthy, Cheerios and Lucky Charms shouldn't edge out fruits and vegetables, which are naturally packed with fiber and vitamins that can help ward off cancer and other illnesses, said Amy F. Subar, a research nutritionist at the National Cancer Institute and the lead author of the study.

For the report, published this fall in Pediatrics, researchers at the federal institute reviewed dietary data from a nationally representative sample of 4,008 children ages 2 to 18 between 1989 and 1991. The authors found that ready-to-eat cold cereal was the primary source of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and folic acid for all age categories.

Many of the nutrients added to cereal don't naturally occur in grain products. Folic acid, added to many cereals, can help reduce certain types of cancer, earlier studies have found.

The researchers stop short of saying the majority of children in the study lacked a healthy, nutritious diet, but they express concern that most of the children's daily intake featured such low-nutrient foods as soft drinks, donuts, and other sugary snacks. Cereals fortified with nutrients should be a supplement--not a substitute--for fruits, vegetables, milk, whole grains, and other foods necessary for good health, Ms. Subar said.

Appealing to Youths: Teenagers who watch television and music videos--which often feature alcohol advertisements or images of people drinking at bars--are more likely to start drinking alcohol than adolescents who are less-frequent viewers, a report published last month has found.

In the study published in last month's Pediatrics, Stanford University researchers followed 1,533 9th graders attending six public high schools in San Jose, Calif., over an 18-month period. They evaluated how often the students watched television and music videos, how many hours they played computer or video games, and their consumption of alcoholic beverages.

The researchers found that each additional hour per day that students watched a music video was associated with a 31 percent increase in the risk of drinking over the next 18 months. Each hour per day the youths spent watching other kinds of television programs was associated with a 9 percent greater risk of alcohol use during the same period.

But while watching television programs and commercials may spur more high schoolers to imbibe, each hour devoted to watching movies on a videocassette recorder helped to decrease by 11 percent the likelihood that a student would drink alcohol, the study found. The researchers also found that playing video or computer games neither increased nor decreased students' propensity to drink alcoholic beverages. Nor did watching television or music videos affect the drinking habits of students who already reported drinking alcoholic beverages at the beginning of the study.

"The more beer advertising children are exposed to on television, the more often they recognize slogans and brands and more positive they feel about drinking," said an accompanying statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The academy charged that the croaking frog in Budweiser beer commercials is as appealing to young people as the colorful Joe Camel cartoon character that has been widely criticized by educators for targeting youth smokers.

--Jessica Portner

Vol. 18, Issue 16, Page 8

Published in Print: December 16, 1998, as Easy Access Blamed for Youths' Increased Heroin Use
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