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Over 1 Million Americans Abuse Prescriptions

Women, Seniors, Ill Most Likely to Need Addiction Treatment
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WebMD Health News

April 21, 2004 -- Judging by the "E" cable television network and recent headlines concerning Rush Limbaugh, you might think that the cornerstone of prescription drug abuse is celebrity. But new research shows that those most likely to become addicted to doctor-prescribed medications are everyday Americans.

Women, senior citizens, those in failing health, and daily drinkers are most likely to be among the estimated 1.3 million Americans whose prescription drug habit is serious enough to warrant treatment intervention, reports a study in the American Journal of Public Health.

To be classified as "problem users" in need of treatment, they must exhibit at least two symptoms of abuse: the inability to cut down or need for larger amounts; withdrawal symptoms; using the drug in the past month; or being depressed, upset, or unable to think clearly. Overall, federal statistics indicate that in any given year, nearly 9 million Americans over age 12 -- about 4% of the total U.S. population -- take prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons.

Interestingly, researchers find no link between prescription drug abuse and the use of illegal substances such as marijuana and cocaine. "Our findings suggest that the problem use of narcotics, sedative hypnotics, and tranquilizers occurs in the absence of illicit drug-taking," says Linda Simoni-Wastila, PhD, of the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy in Baltimore.

Who Abuses What

Using data from the 1991-1993 National Household Surveys on Drug Abuse, she and colleague Gail Strickler tracked demographic patterns associated with prescription drug abuse. Among their findings:

  • Women, singles, and people over age 35 were more likely than others to abuse painkillers such as codeine and morphine.
  • Abuse of tranquilizers such as valium and Xanax was most prevalent among women, whites, those with a high school education, people in poor health, or those who drink alcohol daily.

  • Barbiturates such as Seconal were most abused by those in poor health and less abused by people making less than $40,000 a year.

  • Being employed full-time or being younger than 25 appears to "protect against problem use."

While their study didn't explore the "whys" of prescription drug abuse, federal health officials note that painkiller abuse has become especially worrisome in the past decade. Since 1995, there's been a 163% increase in emergency room visits resulting from abuse of pain relievers, reports the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

"Many Americans benefit from the appropriate use of prescription pain killers, but, when abused, they can be as addictive and dangerous as illegal drugs," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson says in a prepared statement.

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