Prescription Drug Abuse Targeted as a ‘Public Health Crisis’

BY Betty Ann Bowser  April 19, 2011 at 6:51 PM EDT

Pills; Flickr user hitthatswitchThe Obama administration launched a major campaign Tuesday to combat prescription drug abuse, which it says is the nation’s fastest growing drug problem.

The program, announced at a press conference in Washington, aims to reduce abuse rates of some non-medical prescription drugs by 15 percent over by five years and to cut down on the number of unintentional overdose deaths.

It would require drugmakers to raise awareness about the dangers of painkillers like OxyContin and seek legislation to require doctors to get training before they could prescribe such drugs.

Plus it calls for spending more than $200 million more on drug prevention and treatment programs in the 2012 fiscal year.

Authorities described the magnitude of what they said is a growing but under-recognized problem – one that they said exceeds the number of people who died in the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and the black tar heroin epidemic of the 1970s. Roughly 28,000 people died from unintentional drug abuses in 2007, the year with the most recent data – and most of those were connected with prescription drugs.

“Abuse of prescription drugs, especially opioids, represents an alarming public health crisis,” Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh said in a statement accompanying the news.

The program was announced by Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, along with the heads of the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Kerlikowske told the NewsHour that the problem with prescription drugs has gotten so bad that more Americans die from prescription drug overdoses than they do in car crashes in 17 states and the District of Columbia. In 2007, the last year for which figures are available, Kerlikowske said, “more than 28,000 people died from prescription drug overdoses.”

The number of people going to the emergency room due to misuse or abuse of prescription drugs has also doubled in the past five years, Kerlikowske said.

Between 2002 and 2009, the number of Americans ages 12 and older who abused prescription drugs increased by 20 percent, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“This problem takes more lives than gunshot wounds,” he told us. “And among teenagers it’s become an entry level path to addiction.”

Kerlikowske said he believes there is widespread ignorance on the part of Americans “that what’s inside the medicine cabinet can kill.”

Government officials said that teenagers are especially vulnerable because they don’t generally understand that something “prescribed by the family doctor can be dangerous.”

The three agencies involved will all take part in a major campaign to make the public more aware of the dangers of prescription drugs, especially opioid pain medications. The new program calls for:

  • Every state to monitor and track prescription drugs

  • The DEA to help Americans dispose of unused, expired or unneeded prescription drugs that are in their medicine cabinet

  • Increase education for those who prescribe drugs

Another of the program’s main emphases will be on education, especially in the nation’s medical schools.

“They really get very little training in this area,” Kerlikowske said. “We really want to do more to educate prescribers.”

A national survey of medical residency programs found only 56 percent of medical schools require substance use disorder training and the number of hours required in those programs varied between three and 12.

The 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that over 70 percent of people who abused prescription pain medications got then from friends or relatives and that another 5 percent got them from a drug dealer or from the Internet.

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