When parents warn their children about drug exposure, they tell them tales of the danger of peer pressure from teenagers in murky basements or from the dark corners of the bleachers during a high school football game. Coming-of-age movies portray swimming pools full of teens drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana while the protagonist dodges bad influences like a spy weaving through radioactive laser beams. The reality for many American teenagers, however, doesn’t align with popular narratives. First-time drug use often begins somewhere far more fluorescent: the dentist’s chair.
Getting one’s wisdom teeth removed is a rite of passage for teenagers, right up there with getting a driver’s license or going to prom. When I was 17, on the same day I received my first college acceptance, I was in a chair having my impacted third molars removed. My experience wasn’t particularly groundbreaking; nearly 3.5 million people get their wisdom teeth extracted each year. Unfortunately, what is also not remarkable, is that after the procedure I was handed a prescription for an opioid, a type of drug involved in the deaths of nearly 50,000 people per year.