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More Americans Addicted To Prescription Drugs

July 30, 2008

Experts say prescription drug addiction is continuing to rise.

According to federal data, nearly 7 million Americans abused prescription drugs in 2007 “” more than cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, Ecstasy and inhalants such as marijuana combined. The figure is up 80 percent since 2000.

Definitions of abuse vary but typically refer to nonmedical use of prescription drugs.

But what is it that makes people so comfortable with taking medicine they’re not prescribed?

“What you have among over the counter and prescription drug use is a very low perception of risk,” said Stephen Pasierb, president and chief executive of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“There’s very low social disapproval. In fact, there are parents who are almost relieved that their kid is using Vicodin and not smoking marijuana,” he said.

The number of Americans treated for abuse of painkillers surged 321 percent from 1995 to 2005, federal statistics show””a trend some health experts link to another stunning figure: the 180 million prescriptions dispensed legally by U.S. pharmacies each year for pain medication.

Len Paulozzi, an epidemiologist with the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, testified recently in Congress that he believed physicians were improperly trained in the long-term dangers of therapy involving opioid painkillers, or drugs containing opium.

He believes there are guidelines out there that aren’t being routinely followed.

Sen. Joseph Biden, a Democrat from Delaware, said the Internet had become “an information superhighway” for abuse of medicine in the United States. He proposed to make August 2008 “National Medicine Abuse Awareness Month” in a resolution now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

However, containing abuse has proved notoriously difficult. Thirty-eight states have passed legislation for prescription drug monitoring programs to trace the source of drugs, and police in some states have had success in reducing pharmacy break-ins.

A program by the University of Maine provides pre-addressed, postage-paid pouches to the elderly so they can mail their surplus prescription drugs to state authorities for disposal in a bid to reduce the amount that get into the wrong hands.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped the growth nationwide, and experts point to several stubborn problems, including the phenomenon of “doctor shopping,” in which patients go to multiple doctors to get several prescriptions.

Hundreds of online pharmacies also offer drugs that include generic versions of opiates like Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin, methadone and Abbott Laboratories Inc’s Vicodin, which are legitimately prescribed as painkillers, along with stimulants like Ritalin made by Novartis, and benzodiazepines like Pfizer’s Xanax.

David Festinger, a scientist who has studied online drug sales at the Treatment Research Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, said it is as easy in the United States to buy opiates or other abusable prescription drugs online as it is to purchase a book.

Regulating such trade is tough, he said.

“These Internet enterprises set up a bank account in one country, buy their drugs from another country, and do their merchandising and sales from another country,” he said. “Everything is spread all over the globe. And in an instant, if anybody’s on their tail, they can switch everything around.”

On college campuses, popping Adderall, Ritalin and other prescribed amphetamine-like psychostimulant drugs is a popular way to help cram for tests and cope with academic pressure.

Some students are legitimately prescribed these medications for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, helping sufferers increase alertness, attention and energy. But many use them without prescriptions.

Amelia Arria, a senior researcher at the University of Maryland’s Center for Drug Abuse Research, which surveyed 1,253 students on drug usage, said almost 60 percent of students have been offered an opportunity to try prescription stimulants by their junior (third) year of college in the United States.

Health insurers are also feeling the effects. Some face mounting pressure to expand coverage to include substance-abuse disorders. Others are grappling with swindlers who obtain illicit prescription narcotics through fraudulent insurance claims for bogus prescriptions, treating phantom injuries.

According to a 2008 report by the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, an advocacy group based in Washington, these frauds costs health insurers up to $72.5 billion a year.

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