Misuse of Prescription Drugs Rising in the US

Allison Gandey

September 08, 2008

September 8, 2008 — Nonmedical use of prescription pain relievers has risen 12% in the past year, a new national survey released Thursday shows. It is a problem the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) highlighted in a similar report last year, but researchers are showing the numbers are even higher this year.

The annual survey includes about 67,500 people across the country.

"The abuse of prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons is of increasing concern," SAMHSA administrator Terry Cline, PhD, said in a statement. "These are potent drugs that can have serious and life-threatening consequences if misused. Parents in particular need to be aware of this problem and take steps to prevent these medications from falling into the wrong hands."

The survey also reported on illicit drug use and found improvements among young people, but higher substance-abuse rates for older adults.

Drug use among those aged 55 to 59 years reportedly more than doubled, to 4.1% in 2007. The survey suggests that baby boomers have continued their higher levels of substance abuse as they age.

But the numbers appear promising for young people. Historically, young adults have had the highest rates of substance abuse, and yet this year, researchers observed declines in illicit drug use as well as alcohol and cigarettes.

Decline in Substance Abuse Among Youth Ages 12 to 17 Years

Substance 2002 (%) 2007 (%)
Past month illicit drug use 11.6 9.5
Current marijuana use 8.2 6.7
Alcohol use 17.6 15.9
Cigarette use 13.0 9.8

The report shows that reductions in youth drug use occurred for nearly every type of illicit drug, including marijuana, cocaine, hallucinogens, LSD, 3,4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine (Ecstasy), pain relievers, stimulants, and methamphetamine.

Cocaine use also declined among 18- to 25-year-olds, dropping by 23%. Methamphetamine use fell by a third in this same age group (to 0.4%).

"These results confirm that progress has been made — particularly regarding substance abuse among younger Americans," Michael Leavitt, the secretary of Health and Human Services, said in a statement.

"The report also reminds us of the importance of our efforts to provide substance-abuse treatment to those in need and to encourage healthcare professionals to identify people who are at risk for developing substance-abuse problems and intervene early," he added.

When it comes to prescription drugs, we cannot afford to relive the painful experiences we’ve had with illegal drugs.

John Walters, director of the national drug control policy, also weighed in on the report, saying that he agrees that progress is being made. "The markets for these poisons are shrinking, and the deadly grip they hold on the lives of individuals, families, and communities is being countered," he noted.

"But when it comes to prescription drugs, we cannot afford to relive the painful experiences we've had with illegal drugs. We must act quickly to increase awareness of the dangers of prescription drug abuse, decrease the illegal diversion of these products, and shore up safer practices for their prescription and distribution."

Depression, Substance Abuse Link

The report shows that in 2007, adults who had experienced a major depressive episode in the past year were more than twice as likely as other adults to have used drugs (27.4% vs12.8%).

The survey shows that at least 24.3 million Americans aged 18 years or older experienced serious psychological distress over the past year. And 16.5 million Americans suffered at least 1 major depressive episode during this period.

The complete survey findings are available on the SAMHSA Web site.

The researchers have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

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