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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 11:16 EDT

Online Pharmacies Driving Up Prescription Drug Abuse

May 13, 2011

A new study has found that access to online pharmacies may be driving a rapid increase in the abuse of prescription drugs like Percocet and Oxycontin.

The pharmacies send out millions of email solicitations a year, and many do not adhere to U.S. regulations requiring a physician’s prescription for the drugs.

“We know we face a growing problem with prescription drug abuse in the United States. One need only look at statistics for college campuses, where prescription drugs are fast replacing illegal substances, to see the magnitude of the problem,” Dana Goldman, PhD, director of the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at University of Southern California (USC) and the study’s senior author, said in a statement.

Investigators from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and USC found that states with the greatest expansion in high-speed Internet access also had the largest increase in admissions for treatment of prescription drug abuse.

“Our findings suggest that Internet growth may partly explain the increase in prescription drug abuse, since it is well known that these drugs are easily available online,” Goldman.

Goldman and Anupam Jena, of the MGH Department of Medicine, said the recent rise in the abuse of prescription narcotic painkillers corresponds with an increase in the presence of online pharmacies.

Drugs that are frequently abused often can be purchased from rogue sites outside the U.S.

Researchers paired data available on Internet access from the Federal Communications Commission with figures on admissions to substance abuse treatment facilities.

Changes in measures from 2000 to 2007 were analyzed on a per-state basis, and treatment admissions were categorized by the types of based substances that were involved.

The researchers found that each 10% increase in the availability of high-speed Internet service was correlated with about one-percent increase in admissions for prescription drug abuse.

During the same period admissions to treat drug and alcohol abuse either rose minimally or actually dropped.

“The lack of an increase in abuse of drugs not available on the Internet suggests that an overall growth in drug-seeking behavior cannot explain the rise in prescription drug abuse,” Jena said in a statement.

The U.S. Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act prohibits delivery of controlled substances not prescribed by a physician.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued warnings to over 100 online pharmacies for violations.  Jena said the impact of the FDA’s measures is still unknown.

The results of the study were publish May 12 in the journal Health Affairs.

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