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Reitan: Prescription drug misuse and abuse

Prescription Drug Misuse & Abuse (source:

Prescription drug abuse is the nation's fastest-growing drug problem, and it has been classified as an epidemic. Unfortunately, people of all ages are affected, as shown by several government studies. Being an informed consumer will help keep you and your family safe.

How many Americans are misusing and abusing prescription medications?

  • Over 50 percent of prescription drug abusers got them from family or friends. "2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health," Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (September 2012).
  • Over 67 percent of 12th graders who abused prescription narcotics, such as Vicodin or OxyContin, were given the drugs by a friend or relative. "2012 Monitoring the Future Survey," from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  • 22 percent of 12th graders who abused prescription narcotics took the drugs from a friend or relative without asking. "2012 Monitoring the Future Survey," from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  • In 2011, 6.1 million people aged 12 and older used prescription drugs non-medically. "Results from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health," Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (September 2012).

What is the difference between misuse and abuse?

  • Food and Drug Administration explains that the difference between abuse and misuse has to do with the individual's intentions or motivations. For example, when a person takes a prescription drug to get a pleasant or euphoric feeling (ie, to "get high"), especially at higher doses than prescribed, that is an example of drug abuse.

According to FDA, prescription drug misuse may involve not following medical instructions, but the person taking the drug is not looking to "get high." For example, if a person isn't able to fall asleep after taking a single sleeping pill, they may take another pill an hour later, thinking, "That will do the job." Or a person may offer his headache medication to a friend who is in pain. According to FDA, those are examples of drug misuse because the person is trying to treat a condition or symptom, but not according to the directions of a health care provider. FDA stresses that both misuse and abuse of prescription drugs can be harmful and even life threatening to the individual. This is because taking a drug other than the way it is prescribed can lead to dangerous outcomes that the person may not anticipate.

How many teens and young adults abuse prescription and over-the-counter medications?

  • Nearly 15 percent of all U.S. high school students have misused prescription controlled substance drugs. Almost half of all high school students are current users of addictive substances - primarily alcohol, but also cigarettes, marijuana, and prescription drugs - and of these, one in three is addicted. "Adolescent Substance Use: America's #1 Public Health Problem," from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (June 2011).
  • 1 in every 16 high school seniors abuse cold medicine
  • Every day, 2,500 youth (12-17) abuse a prescription pain reliever for the very first time.
  • Among 12 and 13 year olds who abuse drugs, prescription drugs are the most commonly abused.
  • Among young adults aged 18-25, abuse of prescription drugs is second only to abuse of marijuana. "Results from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health," from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (September 2012).

Why are teens abusing prescription drugs?

  • In surveys conducted by the Partnership at, teens reported that they used prescription drugs to help them deal with problems, manage their lives, lower stress, and enhance performance, as well as to get high. "Preventing Teen Abuse of Prescription Drugs," from The Partnership at (2010).
  • "Almost a third (32 percent of teens say they abuse prescription painkillers because they believe there are fewer side effects than street drugs." "Prescription for Danger: A report on the troubling trend of prescription and over-the-counter drug abuse among the nation's teens," (PDF) from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (January 2008)
  • Most eighth-grade students perceive regular marijuana use and occasional heroin use as a great risk, but less than 36 percent see occasional nonmedical use of Vicodin or OxyContin as a great risk. "2012 Monitoring the Future Survey," from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  • "Pharm parties" are quickly becoming popular in many high schools. Prescription drugs, or "pilz," are dumped in a bowl and taken by the handful resulting in many different possible drug-drug interactions and overdoses. "Prescription Drug Abuse," from North Dakota State University College of Pharmacy students, available on the AWARXE Get Local North Dakota page.

How are people obtaining illegal prescription drugs?

  • "More than three in five teens say prescription pain relievers are easy to get from parent's medicine cabinet..." "Prescription for Danger: A report on the troubling trend of prescription and over-the-counter drug abuse among the nation's teens" (PDF) from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (January 2008)
  • One in four grandparents indicate that they leave medications in places that children and teens can easily access. For example, they may place pills in daily dose boxes that are not stored out of children's reach--this situation puts children at risk for accidental ingestion, and also makes pills easily accessible to teens and visitors. "Easy-Access Medications a Poisoning Risk for Kids at Home" from C.S. Mott's Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health.
  • People who become addicted to prescription drugs may engage in "doctor shopping," that is, moving from doctor to doctor in an effort to obtain multiple prescriptions for the drug(s) they abuse. "Preventing and Recognizing Prescription Drug Abuse," from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

What is the impact of prescription drug abuse on Americans?

  • Every year, nearly 15,000 people die from overdoses of prescription painkillers. "Prescription Painkiller Overdoses in the U.S." Web page, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • The number of emergency department visits due to misuse or abuse of prescription drugs has risen 98.4 percent since 2004. "Overdoses of Prescription Opioid Pain Relievers - United States, 1999-2008," Vital Signs, November 4, 2011, CDC.

What is being done to help people avoid misuse and abuse, and prevent prescription drug addictions?


  • AWARXE, a consumer protection program, maintains AWARERX.ORG as an information source providing authoritative resources about medication safety, prescription drug abuse, medication disposal, and safely buying medications on the Internet. AWARXE also participates in consumer expos, middle school educational campaigns, and other outreach efforts to educate consumers about preventing drug misuse and abuse.
  • Medicines in My Home, an FDA initiative, provides a multimedia educational program developed to teach consumers how to choose over-the-counter medicines and how to use them safely.
  • PEERx, is an online initiative developed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health, to educate 13-15 year olds on the dangers of prescription drug abuse. The program offers an interactive video; an activity guide with step-by-step instructions to help teens organize peers in their school or community group; relevant posts from NIDA's Sara Bellum Blog; free downloads; and fact sheets.


  • Local Medication Disposal Programs and Drug Take-Back Events: Drug take-back programs provide consumers with a safe and legal means for disposing of unused, unneeded, and expired prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Getting unneeded medications out of the home can help prevent misuse and abuse. A drug take-back location is available at the West Fargo Police Department, 800 4th Ave. E., West Fargo.

What is being done to help ensure that patients receive the most appropriate and safest medication(s) and to help ensure that they are used correctly?

Tools for Providers

  • Prescription monitoring programs (PMPs) assist health care providers in making better informed treatment decisions for patients. A state PMP is a secure database maintained by a state agency that stores information on prescriptions for controlled substance medications or drugs of concern. Depending upon state laws, certain authorized users, such as doctors and pharmacists, may view PMP data so that they have complete information on a patient's medication history. That information assists doctors and pharmacists in making prescribing and dispensing decisions. Such data can allow health care providers to: choose the best possible drug therapy for a patient; determine any potential adverse drug reactions; determine potential drug to drug interactions or allergic reactions; and if needed, identify and offer help to patients who may be misusing or abusing medications.
  • NABP PMP InterConnectSM: PMP programs are run by states agencies, collecting prescription data only from their state. The NABP PMP InterConnect provides a way for state systems to share data, so that authorized users, such as health care providers, can potentially access complete patient data from all states where the patient has had prescriptions filled. For example, if a patient in Ohio travels to Indiana and needs to have a prescription filled, the pharmacist in Indiana can see records from both states by using the NABP InterConnect. The information reported back from both states can help that pharmacist make decisions about dispensing that are in the best interest of the patient's health and safety. By facilitating data sharing among state PMPs, NABP InterConnect helps enhance patient care.
Mike Reitan is the assistant West Fargo Police chief