NYU Finds Teen Bath Salt Use Is Low, But Still Fears Synthetic Drug Epidemic

bath salts
Use of Flakka and so-called bath salts is relatively low, but researchers warn of dangers of synthetic drugs. pau.artigas, CC BY-SA 2.0.

A recent trend in synthetic drug use has seen a dramatic increase in the past few years, as new psychoactive drugs that have yet to be made illegal are developed regularly. NYU reports that in 2014 alone, 101 new psychoactive drugs were discovered internationally. The main culprit in the upswing of highly dangerous, but readily available substances is bath salts, a relatively common synthetic drug best known to trigger episodes like the Miami “zombie” attack. With an alarming amount of new users introduced to the drug each year, researchers at NYU have conducted a study to see how many teens and young adults have tried, and are regularly engaging with bath salts.

While researchers and authorities still struggle to identify the main ingredients in a constantly evolving world of synthetic drugs, they are aware that bath salts, and drugs like it, can cause a slew of health problems; cardiac, psychiatric, neurological, gastrointestinal and pulmonary issues have all been attributed to the drug. In 2011, bath salts were found to cause over 20,000 emergency room visits within the United States. On top of this, bath salts have been known to cause poisonings, and even deaths among users at dance festivals.

A newer form of bath salt, known as “Flakka” (alpha-PVP), has been seen to cause bizarre behavior in users. Researchers have found Flakka can cause excited delirium involving hallucinations and paranoia that often result in violence, or self-injury. Flakka has also been known to cause death, either by suicide or heart attack, and sometimes kidney failure from increasing body temperatures — sometimes reaching as high as 106 degrees.

In order to see what threats drugs like bath salts and Flakka posed for American youth, NYU researchers under Dr. Joseph J. Palamar, assistant professor of population health, conducted the first national study of self-reported bath salt use among teens. Publishing their findings in The American Journal of Addiction, researchers used data from Monitoring the Future (MTF), an annual, nationwide study that looks into the behaviors, attitudes, and values of high school students. MTF is administered to students at about 130 public and private schools in 48 states, assessing an average total of 15,000 high school seniors. Palamar and his team focused specifically on MTF data from 2012 and 2013, looking at reports given by 8,604 students about alcohol and drug use.

Overall, Palamar and his team found that 1.1 percent of high school seniors reported using bath salts within the past year — a pretty low amount. A third of these students who claimed to have used bath salts said they only used it once or twice within the past year, suggesting experimentation is common among users. Researchers also found, alarmingly, that 18 percent of users who admitted to doing bath salts said they used the drug 40 or more times within the past year.

Moreover, researchers found a link between the students’ lives outside of school and their likelihood to use bath salts. Not surprisingly, students who lived in a home of less than two parents, had a disposable income of about $50 per week from unspecified sources, and who went out four to seven nights per week were at a seriously increased likelihood of experimenting with the drug. MTF also found that users who participated in using bath salts had a lifetime history of using other illicit drugs; 90 percent of bath salt users claimed to use alcohol or marijuana frequently, while substances like powder cocaine, LSD, crack, and heroin were tried 10 times or more. What’s more, researchers believe that many more high school students who take MDMA, or “Molly,” may also be exposed to bath salts, as these well-known club drugs often come laced with bath salts.

Fortunately, researchers did find that between 2012 and 2013, more high school students were becoming educated to the dangers of bath salts, as perceived risk associated with the drug among this population increased from 25 percent to 39 percent. Researchers cannot identify the changes in dialogue surrounding bath salts that could have caused this, but believe media coverage about the dangers of the drug can be attributed to this decrease in use.  

“While results suggest bath salt use is not particularly prevalent among teens in the U.S., it is important that we continue to monitor new drugs such as bath salts in order to inform prevention and quickly detect drug epidemics,” Palamar concluded.

Source: Palamar J. “Bath salt” use among a nationally representative sample of high school seniors in the United States. The American Journal of Addictions. 2015. 

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