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Is Prescription Drug Abuse Still an Epidemic?

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Is Prescription Drug Abuse Still an Epidemic?

Prescription drug abuse is a growing epidemic. The Office of National Drug Control Policy and the 2010 Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics journal both say prescription drug abuse has become the second-most abused category of drugs (trailing only marijuana) across all age groups. Likewise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which specifically called it an epidemic in 2012, said prescription drug abuse has become the nation’s fastest-growing drug problem. The CDC added that opioid pain medication was involved in more overdose deaths since 2003 than heroin and cocaine combined and that nearly one-third of people who took drugs illicitly for the first time in 2009 started with prescription drugs. Three main classes of prescription medication represent the majority of the abuse, and they are as follows:

  • Opioid painkillers like Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone), and morphine
  • Central nervous systems (CNS) stimulants like amphetamines, Ritalin and Adderall
  • CNS depressants like Klonopin (clonazepam), Ativan (lorazepam), Valium (diazepam), Xanax (alprazolam) and Ambien (zolpidem)

In 2006 the Pain Physician journal published “Prescription Drug Abuse: What Is Being Done to Address this New Drug Epidemic?” and highlighted several alarming trends and statistics including the following:

  • Prescription drugs now lead marijuana the most common drug of first-time initiates.
  • One in five adolescents aged 12 to 17 has taken prescription drugs recreationally.
  • Opioid painkiller abuse among teenagers rose 542% between 1992 and 2003.

While opioid painkillers make up the majority of the prescription drug abuse, a 2013 UC Berkeley study found that stimulants have become a major problem on college campuses. Approximately 17% of college students abuse prescription stimulants, which they often view as cognitive enhancers. A common motivation for use is gaining academic or athletic advantages. Several other statistics also highlight the epidemic including the following:

  • Sixteen million Americans reported past-year recreational use in 2010 and seven million past-month use per the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
  • The 2011 Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) report showed that prescription drug-related emergencies increased 132% between 2004 and 2011.
  • The number of medical emergencies involving nonmedical prescription drug use now rivals that of illicit drug use.
Is Prescription Drug Abuse Still an Epidemic?

“The Prescription Drug Epidemic in the United States: A Perfect Storm,” a 2011 article in the Drug and Alcohol Review journal, noted that abuse rates are highest among older teens, young adults, and people aged 55 and over. The study highlighted several reasons for the growing problem including incorrect prescribing practices and increases in the number of prescriptions written. Other factors contributing to the epidemic include the following:

  • Wider availability of prescription drugs via doctors, the internet, and medicine cabinets
  • The false perception that pharmaceutical drugs must be safe if doctors prescribe them
  • Less social stigma and fewer legal consequences associated with nonmedical use
  • Parental pressure for kids to take attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drugs
  • The potential for an addiction to develop out of legitimate medical use
  • Greater ease in carrying and using prescription drugs in public places

The commerce side of the drug business also plays a role. The United Nations’ World Drug Report 2012 said the global drug trade reached $320 billion in 2003. By comparison, USA Today put the global pharmaceutical industry at $600 billion and said the drug companies spend 19 times more money on marketing and promotion than they do on basic research. Many of these companies work hard to help prevent nonmedical use, but their marketing strategies still increase awareness and positive perceptions of their products.

Another contributing factor is the addictive nature of certain pharmaceuticals. Many people do not realize that opioid painkillers are made from the same opium poppy plants as heroin, and the pharmacological effects of Ritalin and Adderall are similar to cocaine and crystal meth. Taking prescription drugs orally limits the effects, but many addicts inhale or inject crushed pills for an immediate high akin to their illicit drug counterparts.

Prescription drug addiction and overdose remain major epidemics, but individuals can take steps to limit the risks including the following:

  • Make sure prescription drugs are properly stored and inaccessible to others.
  • Educate yourself and your loved ones on potentially addictive prescription drugs.
  • Consider holistic options to treat issues like insomnia, anxiety, and chronic pain.
  • Accept that doctor shopping and illicit purchases are leading signs of abuse.
  • Get professional help immediately when signs of an addiction emerge.

Treatment professionals can screen for substance abuse problems and provide effective therapies for potential addictions. Residential inpatient and part-time outpatient are both treatment options, and supervised detox can significantly reduce any withdrawal symptoms. Other potential services include behavioral and motivation therapies, coping skills strategies, anger and stress management, trauma counseling, and optional holistic treatments.

If you need professional help, call our addiction help center 24 hours a day. Our admissions coordinators can answer questions, make recommendations, discuss warning signs and even check health insurance plans for treatment benefits. If you or a loved one has a drug abuse problem, please call our toll-free helpline now.

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