Study: Prescription Pain Pill Abuse Up 400%

Researchers Say Increases Seen Across All Sectors of Society

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on July 19, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

July 19, 2010 -- Abuse of prescription pain relievers jumped 400% between 1998 and 2008 among people aged 12 and older, according to a new report.

The report showed that prescription pain reliever abuse rose from 2.2% in 1998 to 9.8% a decade later, with increases seen across all sectors of society -- gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, education, employment status, and region. Moreover, pain reliever abuse soared from 6.8% in 1998 to 26.5% in 2008 among people admitted to treatment facilities for opioid dependence.

Easy access to prescription pain relievers, such as keeping OxyContin in the bathroom medicine cabinet or accessing illegal pharmacies on the Internet, may play a role in the increase, experts say. These numbers also indicate that prescription painkiller abuse has become a major national public health threat.

“The non-medical use of prescription pain relievers is now the second most prevalent form of illicit drug use in the nation, and its tragic consequences are seen in substance abuse treatment centers and hospital emergency departments throughout our nation” says Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Administrator Pamela S. Hyde, JD, in a news release. “This public health threat demands that we follow the president’s National Drug Control Strategy’s call for an all out effort to raise awareness of this risk and the critical importance of properly using, storing, and disposing of these powerful drugs.”

Prescription Drug Abuse on the Rise

The study was conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It was based on treatment facility admission data and was published Friday as the “Treatment Episode Data Set Report.”

Among the study’s other key findings:

  • There were equally significant increases in prescription pain reliever abuse among men and women. For men, the proportion of treatment admissions rose from 1.8% in 1998 to 8.1% a decade later; for women, those figures were 3.5% and 13.3%, respectively.
  • There were also equally significant increases among people with different levels of education. For people with an eighth grade education or less, admissions rose from 1.9% to 9.7% from 1998 to 2008; people with more than a high school education experienced an increase from 3.8% to 12.1% during that same time period.
  • More than 55% of nonmedical users obtained prescription pain relievers from a friend or a relative for free; another 8.9% reported that they purchased prescription painkillers from a friend or relative.
  • Although increases were seen across all races/ethnicities, non-Hispanic whites showed one of the most significant increases of admissions of prescription painkiller misuse, from 3.2% in 1998 to 14.4% in 2008.
  • Increases were similar among the employed and unemployed, with a jump for employed people from 2.1% in 1998 to 9.2% in 2008 versus 2.7% to 11.1% for the unemployed.

Experts say public health officials should work with the pharmaceutical industry and families to curb this trend. They also say doctors should be educated about the prevalence of prescription painkiller abuse and should discuss prescription misuse with their patients and educate them about the risks related to dependence.

The National Drug Control Policy also recently introduced a strategy to reduce painkiller abuse by cracking down on rogue treatment clinics, “pill mills,” and other illegal sources of prescription drugs that contribute to medication trafficking.

“These findings should serve as exclamation points to punctuate what we already know -- abuse of prescription drugs is our country’s fastest-growing drug problem, the source of which lurks far too often in our home medicine cabinets,” says R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of National Drug Control Policy, in a news release. “Reducing prescription drug abuse is a top priority of this Administration’s 2010 National Drug Control Strategy and requires collaboration across the medical, prevention, treatment, and enforcement communities.”

Show Sources


News release, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

News release, Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The Treatment Episode Data Set Report.

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