Prescription drugs intended to ease pain and heal ailments are increasingly being abused by Americans, especially teenagers, according to a report released yesterday by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University.
“Our nation is in the throes of an epidemic,” said CASA Chairman Joseph Califano Jr., who called the findings “deeply troubling.”
The number of Americans abusing prescription drugs nearly doubled from 7.8 million in 1992 to 15.1 million in 2003, according to the report. Prescription-drug abuse also has become more widespread than abuse of illicit drugs such as cocaine, heroin and hallucinogens combined, which numbered 12.3 million in 2003.
The most popular prescription drugs were opioids, which are painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet. The study also examined abuse of depressants such as Valium and Xanax and stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall.
Partly to blame for the increase, Mr. Califano said, is the widespread availability of prescription drugs on the Internet. In 2004, the research firm Beau Dietl & Associates found that only 6 percent of Web sites selling prescription drugs required a prescription.
The number of 12-to-17-year olds abusing prescription drugs increased 212 percent in the 11 years CASA examined, while the number of adults abusing prescription drugs increased 81 percent, according to the study.
“For many kids, the family medicine cabinet has become a greater temptation and a greater threat than illegal street drugs,” said Mr. Califano, who served under President Carter as the secretary of health, education and welfare. He said many young people assume prescription drugs are safe because they are “a good clean pill in a nice clean bottle.”
But in 2002, controlled prescription drugs were responsible for 29.9 percent of drug-related emergency-room deaths. Cocaine and heroin combined were responsible for 27.8 percent of drug-related deaths, according to the report.
Mr. Califano described “pharming parties,” where teenagers bring prescription drugs from home and trade or share them for the purpose of getting high. “While many parents lock their liquor cabinets, most do nothing to ensure that controlled prescription drugs are not accessible to children.”
In addition to parents being more aware of their children’s activities, Mr. Califano said physician awareness is needed to curb the rise in abuse. He said doctors need to be more aware of patients who fake symptoms that are treated with addictive drugs and engage in “doctor shopping,” or going to multiple doctors to get many prescriptions for the same drug.
According to the CASA report, 43.3 percent of physicians in America do not ask about prescription-drug abuse when discussing a patient’s medical history. One-third of physicians do not regularly obtain records from previous doctors before prescribing controlled drugs.