Over 1 Million Americans Abuse Prescriptions
Women, Seniors, Ill Most Likely to Need Addiction Treatment
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
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.
Second Most Abused Drugs
Federal statistics indicate that in 2002, more than 6 million
Americans were classified as current abusers of prescription drugs, whose
nonmedical use now ranks second -- behind only marijuana -- as the most abused
drug category in the U.S.
Last month, the Bush administration outlined a plan pushing for
state monitoring of prescription drug use. Under the plan outlined March 1,
states will receive federal funds to flag cases indicating abuse patterns such
as "doctor shopping," where a patient gets prescriptions for drugs from
multiple physicians. The plan also calls to seek out and crack down on Internet
pharmacies that illegally sell these drugs.