Abuse of medication serious public health problem
Tuesday, April 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Four million Americans are abusing prescription drugs, including sleep-deprived people who become addicted to sedatives and family members who sell spare pills on the street, the government says.
Pharmaceuticals designed to relieve pain, calm stress or bring on sleep provide great benefit for millions, but when the drugs are used for nonmedical reasons they can lead to addiction and damaged health, said Alan I. Leshner, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Leshner announced at a news conference Tuesday that the NIDA and seven organizations representing the elderly, pharmacies, drug manufacturers and patients are starting a campaign to combat what he called ``a dangerous new drug abuse trend'' _ the nonmedical use of prescriptions.
Calvin Anthony, vice president of the National Community Pharmacists Association and one of a group of experts from the prescription drug industry at the news conference, estimated that misuse and abuse of medication has more than a $100 billion impact on the nation's health care costs.
The experts said that many patients taking sedatives, stimulants, tranquilizers, pain killers or opioids begin to use the pills inappropriately and can slip into an addiction cycle that dominates their lives and damages their health.
``Nobody starts out to be addicted,'' Leshner said.
``While prescription drugs can relieve a variety of medical problems and improve the lives of millions of American, they can be dangerous, addicting and even deadly when used nonmedically,'' he said.
The experts said that patients with chronic pain often keep supplies of drugs in their homes for legitimate use and in some cases the drugs are stolen by family members for sale on the street.
Morphine is often used in large doses by patients with terminal cancer or other conditions and stolen packages of the drug are in high demand on the street.
Some people recovering from surgery use pain-relievers far longer than needed and eventually become addicted. Poor sleepers take sedatives and may mix it with alcohol or other drugs. Eventually, they need more and more of the drug to achieve the same effect.
Patients habituated to the drugs may ``doctor shop'' to find physicians who will prescribe the pills and some addicts will establish accounts at different pharmacies to disguise the number of pills they are actually using.
Ritalin, or methylphenidate, a drug commonly used to treat the 3 to 5 percent of America's children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, is becoming a frequently abused stimulant, NIDA said. The drug is being crushed and snorted, dissolved and injected, or mixed with street drugs to create what is called a ``speedball.'' There have been reports of nonmedical use of methylphenidate in Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Minneapolis, Phoenix and Texas, NIDA said.
Leshner said that while everybody can potentially abuse prescription drugs, the risk is greatest among women, the elderly and adolescents.
He said a 1999 study showed that of the 4 million people who used prescriptions for nonmedical purposes, half were abusing the medications for the first time that year. This shows prescription abuse is growing, he said.
An increase in prescription drug abuse has accompanied a rapidly rising trend in the legitimate use of mood-altering medications. NIDA said that from 1990 to 1998, new users of pain relievers rose by 181 percent; new use of tranquilizers went up 132 percent; people starting taking sedatives went up by 90 percent, and the use of stimulants rose by 165 percent.
The agency said that about 17 percent of Americans age 60 and older are affected by prescription drug abuse. Leshner said that is because this age group uses about three times more of the drugs than do young people.
Women, said Leshner, are two to three times as likely to be diagnosed as needing drugs, such as sedatives, and are about two times as likely to become addicted.
Prescription drug abuse among adolescents, age 12 to 17, and among young adults, 18 to 25, is particularly damaging to health because ``their brains are still developing'' and the effects of overuse of the drugs can be ``particularly severe,'' said Leshner.
Leshner said people who abuse prescription drugs are generally of a different population group than those who use street drugs such as heroin, crack or cocaine. He estimated there are about 5 million ``hard-core street addicts.''