Prescription Drug Abuse: A Growing Epidemic

spilled pill bottle

Almost half a century ago, President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs”1 and over 3 decades ago the Reagan administration launched the very popular “Just Say No” campaign2.

Today, this war continues to rage on by evolving and re-emerging in new forms. New drugs are constantly being introduced and they keep finding their way out into the market. The authorities have their work cut out for them, and for the most part have done a good job of it. One thing is for certain, no side appears to be winning.

In the very early days of the war against drugs, the issue of prescription drugs never figured prominently enough with drug abuse prevention advocates. At the time, opioids were seldom used for pain management because it was considered addictive (which of course it is) and it also became less and less effective over time, compelling pain sufferers to use more of it.

By the 1990’s, things began to change. Opioids were increasingly being prescribed to manage chronic pain and at larger doses. In 2000, a staggering 174 million opioid prescriptions were dispensed. By 2009 this increased further to 257 million! Doses of 74 milligrams per person went up to an unbelievable 369 milligrams! These numbers by themselves strongly indicate that prescription drug use has grown into epidemic proportions.

How Serious is Prescription Drug Abuse?

  • 2009, nearly 1/3 of first-time drug users aged 12 and above began by using prescription medication they found lying around at home or at a friend’s home, given by friends in school or at parties, etc.
  • 2011, some 6.1 million people used prescription drugs non-medically.
  • 2013, the non-medical use of prescription drugs among young people aged 12-17 was second only to marijuana as the most prevalent illicit drug use.
  • Deaths from prescription drug overdose increased 4x since 1999 and actually exceeds the number of deaths from cocaine and heroin combined.

Clearly, the same prescription-drug-abuse that used to be whispered about as an embarrassing family secret has grown to become a bona fide public health crisis, so much so that the CDC has called it an epidemic. The war on drugs is no longer confined to back alleys, it has moved into our homes.

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How Did Prescription Drug Abuse Become an Epidemic?

A 2014 study reports that 55% of Americans misused their prescription meds. Forms of misuse include skipping doses, mixing them with illicit drugs, sharing them with family members and friends who may or may not be self-medicating or selling them to other people. Some experts now view prescription drug misuse as being even more serious than the abuse of illicit drugs.

How Can The Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic Be Remedied?

First and foremost, we should recognize that some of the tools that have worked in the past against illicit drug abuse may not necessarily offer a solution to this fight we are facing with prescription drug abuse.  

  • Prevention over prosecution – Increasing the severity of punishment for drug abuse has not resulted to any significant decline in drug abuse. There are over 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons and over 500,000 of them are there for drug offenses, including many young individuals. Perhaps we should pay closer attention to the circumstances that drive these people to drugs.
  • Holistic approach vs. silo fixes – If we indiscriminately limit access to prescription meds, people who legitimately need them for medical purposes will suffer in the process. A holistic approach takes into consideration the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and social aspects.3
  • Keep up with the times – “Just Say No” may have worked on the young people of that era, but it will not work on the youth of today who are very much aware for example that marijuana is legal in some states already. Perhaps educating our youth unceasingly about the negative health implications of misusing prescription drugs will work better than simply telling them to “Just Say No”.
  • Take advantage of technology – There are mobile apps now that track medications and alert patients to take their pills at the right times. Other more sophisticated tools enable doctors to group health plans and administrators in order to identify practitioners who may be prescribing pain meds indiscriminately and patients who may be using them inappropriately. Soon it may be widely possible to get alerts when a patients attempts to fill several prescriptions in a single prescription period.

These tools seek to keep pace with the growing problem of prescription drug abuse as it is today. Armed with these tools along with new and better strategies, anti-prescription drug abuse advocates are hopeful for the future.


1 A Brief History of the Drug War |

2 Just Say No | Reagan Foundation

3 Drug Addiction Treatment | Timberline Knolls