America's Addiction: Prescription Drugs

Good evening everybody and welcome to In the News.  Thanks for being with us again today.  We hope you’re all doing well out there.  We’re going to talk a little bit about an important subject today.  One that has become very prevalent in society.  But one that I think is one of the most underreported subjects in our society currently.  And that is America’s addiction to prescription drugs.

Prescription medicine is big business in the US. There were 4 billion prescriptions written to Americans in 2011 at a cost of a little over $320 billion.  Most of these medications were for areas like oncology, heard disease, anti depressants and anti psychotics.  Developments in new medicines and new treatments have made countless lives better and have eased the pain and suffering of many people.  But this rapid growth of prescription medications has begun to show some negative effects.  And those effects are addiction and abuse.

In a survey conducted recently it was shown that prescription drugs were the second most widely abused category of drug for people above the age of 12.  Second only to marijuana.  Seven million respondents in the survey reported abusing prescription medication within the last month.  By contrast, only 1.6 million people reported using cocaine.  Ecstasy and methamphetamines, which have seen widespread in their own rights, were both less than 1 million users.

According to the center for disease control, abuse of prescription drugs has reached epidemic proportions in the US.  Deaths resulting from general drug overdoses have more than tripled since 1990 in the US, and are at their highest point ever.  Higher than the heroin epidemic of the 70s and the crack/cocaine epidemic of the 80s and 90s.  In 2008 36,000 Americans died of drug overdoses.  Of those deaths, roughly 20,000 were due to prescription drugs. 

Now there are many classes of drugs that are proving to be quite dangerous to our society.  One of them is stimulants, such as Adderall.  Adderall is prescribed for treatment of ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.  But it’s being abused by college students who are looking for extra energy during exam week for example.  The dangers for addiction are real and the number of overdose cases is rising.

But of all the classes of drugs that are contributing to the rise in the number of overdoses, prescription painkillers are proving to be the most lethal.  Of the 20,000 deaths that were caused by prescription drugs, prescription painkillers accounted for about three quarters of them.  About 15,000 Americans die from overdosing on prescription painkillers a year.  That’s more than from cocaine and heroin combined. 

Prescription painkillers are dangerous because they suppress breathing.  Take too many of them or mix them with other drugs, such as alcohol and a person can stop breathing altogether.  The clinical name for prescription painkillers is opioid analgesics.  You and I know these drugs by their common names Vicodin, Morphine, OxyContin, and Percocet among others.

Now when I first read that name I said to myself, that sounds a lot like opium.  And the reason it sounds like opium is because their active ingredients come from the opium poppy.  They work by decreasing the perception of pain in the body, decreasing the reaction to pain and increasing the pain tolerance.  

Their side effects include sedation, respiratory depression and euphoria, or a high, which leads to some people using the drugs recreationally.  They are very effective when used for short term treatment. For the relief of acute pain.  But they are powerful drugs and can be highly addictive.  And we are seeing the evidence of that addictive quality in our society now.

Now the interesting thing is how these drugs are obtained.  More than half of users get these drugs for free from friends or relatives.  Another roughly 20% are prescribed directly from a doctor.  Only about 10% are gotten through illicit means, bought from a drug dealer or stolen from like from a pharmacy etc.

So the danger is right around us, in the most common of circumstances.  And many believe that’s what has made them so dangerous.  The fact that they are legal and so accessible has no doubt had an effect on their widespread use.  The same stigma of illegal, illicit drugs is not there as it is with other drugs

Now one thing I want to point out, there are a lot of people for whom these drugs perform a great service.  Many people suffer from debilitating illnesses and these medications help them make it through their day.  That needs to be pointed out.  But the side effects (addictive nature) of these drugs needs to be talked about and we need to educate ourselves on it.  What we’re talking about here is not the use, but the abuse.  Americans use 99% of the world’s hydrocodone, a common painkiller.  Something is out of whack there.

So what can be done to combat this epidemic?  Well there are 3 main areas where efforts are being concentrated: patient education, doctor education and public policy.  As we mentioned it’s widely believed that because these medications come from doctor’s offices or friends and family that they are not serious drugs.  We need to educate ourselves on the dangers of giving these drugs to others whom they were not prescribed for. That should not be done.  And in some states it may even be illegal.  Patients need to keep medications out of reach.  In a secure place where others can’t get to them.  And if there are unused or expired medications, we have to make sure we are discarding them responsibly.

The second thing is doctor education.  Doctors need to be educated to the truly addictive nature of these drugs.  We have to explore whether industry funded campaigns are leading to an overprescribing of these medications.  Are doctors being taught that the fear of addiction is unrealistic when it is in fact all too real?  There are calls in some quarters for dependence and addiction education requirements for doctors who prescribe these medications.  That should be explored as well.

The third and final area is public policy.  This involves tighter controls and monitoring programs for these medications.  Many states have Prescription Drug Monitoring Program or PDMP’s, but they are only as effective as the number of doctors who use them to identify cases of abuse.  Perhaps they can be made more robust with more participation by doctors and patients so that use is monitored and abnormal patterns can be detected.

State specific prescription pad and better regulation of online pharmacies should be explored so that we can cut down on suspicious pain clinics and online pharmacies who distribute these drugs for non-medical use.  Expansion of take back events should be explored.  A recent National Prescription Drug Take Back day organized by the DEA netted nearly 189 tons of unused and expired prescription drugs.

Prescription drugs provide a great service to a great many people.  The goal is not to make them harder to get.  The goal needs to be, as the White House said, to strike a balance between curbing abuse and maintaining accessibility for their legitimate use.  This issue is quite serious and we hope that more attention gets paid to it.  We’ll be following up on the issue and keeping you informed on the developments that come up.

Finally we want to pass on some information to you.  These are things that you can do right now to help combat abuse of prescription drugs.  Secure any medications you may have in the house. Follow responsible disposal guidelines.  Talk to your kids about the dangers of prescription drug abuse.  Take advantage of take back programs in your neighborhood if there are any. 

And seek treatment.  If you or someone you know is facing challenges with prescription medication we urge you to contact the drug treatment center nearest you.  They will have a wealth of resources to help you get started with finding help.  We have a link to a directory on our website at  You’ll find the link right in the description and show notes for this episode.  We hope you’ll make use of it if you need to.

Thanks for being with us everyone.  That’s our show for tonight.  Feel free to reach out to us at  That’s  Remember to include your name and town.  Include your name and town.  And remember to keep up with In the News on both Facebook and Twitter @itnshow, @itnshow one word.  Until next time everyone, good night.

You can find the substance abuse treatment program nearest you by clicking here.