Millions of teens abuse prescription drugs

By STEVE MITCHELL, UPI Medical Correspondent  |  Jan. 16, 2003 at 4:32 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 16 (UPI) -- More than 5 million American teens and young adults illegally used prescription medications such as painkillers and tranquilizers in 2001 and the numbers appear to be on the increase, a government survey released Thursday reveals.

"The information released today reflecting the extent of prescription drug misuse among young people gives cause for renewed concern," Westley Clark of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said at a news briefing announcing the new survey results.

"The misuse of prescriptions can have tragic consequences," including death, said Clark, who serves as director of the center for substance abuse treatment at SAMHSA. The data comes from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, an annual survey of 69,000 people 12 or older.

The survey indicates nearly 10 million people ranging in age from 12-25 have used prescription drugs illegally at least once in their lifetimes.

More than 5 million people in this age range used the drugs for non-medical reasons in 2001. The rate of abuse among teens was up from 7 percent in 2000 to 8 percent in 2001. Among young adults, the rate had increased to 12 percent in 2001 from 9 percent in 2000.

In addition, youths and young adults who abuse prescription medications also are more likely to use illicit drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin than those not abusing prescription drugs.

To raise public awareness about the growing problem, SAMHSA, together with the Food and Drug Administration, is launching a public information campaign consisting of television, radio and print ads that will warn teens they risk death by illegally using prescription drugs.

The goal is to make parents and doctors aware of the problem and to encourage them to become involved in solving it, Clark said.

"We don't think a single ad program is going to be a panacea," he said. The intention is "to get the message out to parents as well as young adults and the professional community so they all can become more aware," he said.

"Primary care clinicians, through their regular, long-term contact with patients, are in an ideal position to screen for misuse of prescription medications and, more broadly, indications of substance abuse," Clark said.

Pain-relievers such as Oxycontin and Demerol were the most commonly abused class of drugs, the survey found, followed by stimulants, tranquilizers and sedatives. The stimulant Ritalin is often abused by young people and this can lead to heart failure, Clark said. Sedatives include drugs such as Valium and Xanax and these can lead to seizures when used inappropriately, he said.

The FDA is particularly concerned about the abuse of pain relievers because such abuse "is extremely dangerous and can lead to addiction and death," said John Jenkins, director of the agency's office of new drugs. A separate report released by SAMHSA's Drug Abuse Warning Network indicates emergency room visits for problems attributed to prescription pain killers increased significantly in recent years. Visits due to oxycodone increased by more than 350 percent from 1994 to 2001. Methadone visits rose by 230 percent and morphine-related incidents by 210 percent.

Some abusers crush tablets of controlled-release formulations of prescription drugs such as Oxycontin, which can be extremely dangerous, Jenkins said. This is because controlled-released products contain a higher dose of the drug that is intended to be released over several hours. But crushing the tablet "can result in immediate release of the high dose of drug, which can be fatal," he said.

In addition to participating in the ad campaign with SAMHSA, "FDA is working with the manufacturers of controlled release opiates to implement risk management plans that are designed to try to minimize abuse and misuse," Jenkins said.

Pharmacists also can play a critical role in curtailing abuse of legitimate drugs, he said. By law they are required to use adequate recordkeeping and safe storage of these drugs, and they also can verify suspicious prescriptions with doctors to ensure they are legitimate.

Kyle Moores, 19, a recovering Oxycontin addict who resides in Manassas, Va., told reporters he was addicted to the drug for a year and a half. He had lost jobs and spent all of his money and incurred significant debt by maxing out his credit cards to afford his habit.

Moores said he bought Oxycontin from a friend who was illegally selling their mother's pills. Moores also said he would drive while high on Oxycontin and "ran off the road a couple of times," eventually enrolled in a rapid detox program in Richmond, Va., and has been drug-free for 8 months.

The fact that Moores had to travel nearly 100 miles to receive treatment highlights a critical shortage of doctors who specialize in treating drug addicts, Lawrence Brown, president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, told United Press International.

Increasing the number of doctors who specialize in this field is "very critical" to dealing with the problem of prescription drug abuse amongst teens, Brown said. However, government programs and health insurance companies often do not reimburse for this treatment so many doctors find it financially unfeasible to go into or stay in this specialty, he said.

Moores noted treatment of addiction can be very effective and making more specialists available to treat kids with this problem will be essential to curtailing drug abuse.

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