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Prescription Drug Abuse Rising, Survey Finds

Donna Young

Pharmacists play an important role in educating the public about the dangers of misusing prescription drugs, said John K. Jenkins, director of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Office of New Drugs.

If a pharmacist suspects that a prescription for a controlled substance, such as oxcodone, morphine, or codeine, is not legitimate or that prescription drugs are being diverted, he or she should consult the prescriber and involve law enforcement officials if necessary, he said.

Jenkins's remarks were made at a press conference today announcing a joint public awareness campaign between the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and FDA to combat the rising problem of prescription drug abuse.

The campaign’s launch coincided with the release of SAMHSA’s 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), which found that misuse of prescription drug products has continued to rise rapidly in the United States.

Surveyors found that 36 million Americans in 2001 said they had used a prescription drug product for nonmedical uses at least once in their lifetime. About 10 million of those people were youths and young adults ages 12 to 25.

More than 11 million Americans, including 5.4 million youths and young adults, had misused a prescription drug within the past year, the survey found.

In 1999, according to a previous NHSDA survey, 4 million Americans had misused prescription drug products.

"The problem is not going to go away on its own," said Westley Clark, director of SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.

"That is why we need the help of pharmacy organizations and others," he said.

The joint public education effort, he added, has a limited budget from "existing" Department of Health and Human Services funds.

"That is why we are relying on everyone to help us get the word out," Clark said. "We will need lots of partnerships, not just [SAMHSA] and FDA. There are no quick fixes, and this will take families and whole communities to be involved."

In April 2001, the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) challenged pharmacists, physicians, and other health professionals to take a more active role in preventing prescription drug abuse.

NIDA’s initiative is ongoing and complements FDA and SAMHSA’s awareness campaign, said a NIDA spokeswoman.

Public awareness about drug abuse is not necessarily a new role for FDA, said Jenkins.

"Our role is not just regulatory," he said. "We are a public health agency. It’s my office’s responsibility to approve new drugs and ensure the continued safe use of those drugs."

Consumers should be aware, Jenkins said, that, although prescription drugs are safe and effective when used as directed and under a physician’s care, they can cause health problems, even death, when abused.

FDA and SAMHSA have developed brochures and posters targeting youths and young adults with the slogan "The buzz takes your breath away—and it’s to die for" or "The buzz takes your breath away—permanently."

The campaign also includes 20- and 30-second public service radio announcements that provide listeners with a toll-free telephone number for a 24-hour help line.

One radio spot tells listeners: "All drugs have a real potential for harm—even prescription pain relievers when abused."

The most common type of prescription drug abused by youths and young adults in the past year was pain relievers, including oxycodone, codeine, methadone, meperidine, and hydrocodone, the 2001 NHSDA survey found.

Among youths, females were more likely to misuse a prescription drug, according to the survey. But young adult males were more likely to have used prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes.

White Americans were more likely to have misused prescription drugs than African-Americans, Hispanics, or Asians in the youth and young-adult age groups.

The survey also found that youths in rural or small metropolitan areas were more likely to have abused prescription drugs than youths living in large cities.

However, prescription drug abuse by young adults was similar among those living in metropolitan and rural areas.

Kyle Moores, 19, said his addiction to extended-release oxycodone had caused him and his family an enormous amount of financial and emotional problems.

"I was losing my life," he said.

Moores said he had sunk into financial debt, including $6,500 he owed to Circuit City, and had pawned nearly all of his personal belongings before he sought treatment.

Moores became addicted to extended-release oxycodone when a high school friend offered it to him.

At first, he said, the friend provided the tablets to him free of charge. But once Moores became addicted, the friend began charging $30–$80 per tablet.

Moores’s friend, he said, obtained the prescription-only oxycodone from her father. The father did not have a prescription but had convinced his wife to let him use her prescription. However, the friend’s father gave the drugs to his daughter to take to school to sell, Moores said.

Moores admitted that he had used marijuana before trying oxycodone. But addiction to the potent painkiller led him to try other substances, including cocaine and heroine, he said.

"I’ve tried them all," he said.

Moores is currently in a recovery program at his own free will.

Clark said the public service awareness campaign has been directed more toward youths and young adults because they are in the age groups that have had the most rapid increase in prescription drug abuse in recent years.

"But we are concerned about all age groups," he said.