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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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Chronic Abuse of Prescription Drugs Skyrocketing

Abuse of Prescription Pain Killers 200 Days or More in a Year Up by Nearly 75% Since 2002
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 25, 2012 -- Overdose deaths from prescription pain killers is rising, and a new report suggests it's not people looking for a quick fix, but long-term use that may be leading to the problem.

A new CDC study shows the number of people who abused prescription pain killers for more than 200 days in the last year rose by nearly 75% between 2002-03 and 2009-10. But estimates for overall past-year abuse have stayed about the same since 2002.

"This finding is important because it parallels increases in overdose deaths, treatment admissions, and other negative effects associated with opioid pain relievers in recent years," researcher Christopher M. Jones, PharmD, MPH, of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC, writes in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Deaths from overdoses involving prescription pain killers, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone, increased by 109% during the same time period.

Long-Term Drug Abuse Becoming More Common

In the study, researchers compared data on prescription pain killer use gathered by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2002-2003 and 2009-2010.

People who used prescription pain killers were asked to state the number of days they used pain killers for nonmedical reasons in the last year.

Nonmedical use or abuse of prescription pain killers is defined as using the drug without a prescription or simply for the experience or feeling it causes.

The results showed the overall number of people who reported any abuse of prescription pain killers or nonmedical use and those reporting use of less than 200 days in the last year did not change during the study period.

Meanwhile, the rate of chronic drug abuse for 200 to 365 days increased by 75%.

The biggest increases in chronic prescription pain killer abuse were seen among men and young to middle-aged adults. For example:

  • Men - 105% increase
  • People 26 to 34 years old - Up by 81%
  • People 35 to 49 years old - 135% increase

Based on their findings, researchers say nearly 0.4% of people 12 years and older or nearly 1 million people in the U.S. would be classified as chronic prescription drug abusers in 2009-2010.

In addition, nearly 2% or 4.6 million people abused prescription pain killers for 30 days or more.

"These findings underscore the need for concerted public health and public safety action to prevent nonmedical use of these drugs," Jones writes. "Interventions should focus on populations at greatest risk for chronic nonmedical use: men and persons aged 18 to 49 years."

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