Part 1: The Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic

Last updated on May 2, 2022

Prescription drug abuse has become a growing epidemic in the United States. Fifty-two million people over the age of 12 have used prescription drugs non-medically at least once during their lifetime.1 Every day 44 people die from an overdose of painkillers.2 Prescription drug abuse occurs when drugs have psychoactive (mind-altering) properties and are not taken as prescribed or are taken by someone to whom they were not prescribed.3 The most abused types of drugs are opioids, followed by tranquilizers and stimulants.4

Opioids are pain medications that decrease the strength of pain signals to the brain and affect those brain areas controlling emotion, which reduces the effects of a painful stimulus. Opioids include oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin, Percocet), morphine (e.g., Kadian) and hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin). Since these drugs affect the regions of the brain responsible for reward, some users may experience a euphoric reaction.5

Prescription drug abuse has become such an issue in part because pain medications are being over prescribed. In 2010, there were enough prescription painkillers prescribed to medicate every American adult every four hours for a month.6 Opioid prescriptions have increased from 76 million in 1991 to 219 million in 2011. From 1999 to 2010, opioids became the leading type of drug responsible for deaths caused by overdoses.7

Over prescribing opioids can lead to heroin abuse because heroin is a cheaper and more easily obtainable alternative to prescription opioids.8 From 2007 to 2011, heroin use increased by 75%. Heroin use has increased for 12-to-17-year-old first-time users by 80% since 2002.9 Wes Culp, the deputy press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said, “Making sure prescription drugs are not being overprescribed is a necessary first step in curtailing drug addiction and curbing the supply of excess drugs that can be used illicitly.”10

Our next post will look at ways to prevent prescription drug abuse and how to dispose of unused medications.

1 Popping Pills: Prescription Drug Abuse in America
2 Injury Prevention & Control: Prescription Drug Overdose
3 DrugFacts: Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications
4 See FN 1.
5 What are opioids?
6 See FN 1.
7 Report: Many High-Risk Opioid Users Get Pills by Prescription
8 See FN 1.
9 See FN 7.
10 State dentists advised to join fight against opioid abuse