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Prescription drug abusers top 15 million- study

Thursday, July 7, 2005; 10:40 AM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of Americans who admit abusing prescription drugs nearly doubled to over 15 million from 1992 to 2003, with abuse among teens tripling, according to a new study released on Thursday.

The report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University suggested that more Americans were abusing controlled prescription drugs than cocaine, hallucinogens, inhalants and heroin combined.

"Our nation is in the throes of an epidemic of controlled prescription drug abuse and addiction," said former health secretary Joseph Califano, chairman and founder of the Center.

"New abuse of prescription opioids among teens is up an astounding 542 percent," Califano said. "The explosion in the prescription of addictive opioids, depressants and stimulants has, for many children, made the medicine cabinet a greater temptation and threat than the illegal street drug dealer, as some parents have become unwitting and passive pushers."

The report was based on surveys of doctors and pharmacists, personal interviews and focus groups and analysis of national household surveys and census data.

The report said hundreds of Web sites advertised and sold controlled drugs, often without prescription and without regard to age so that teens and children could easily get them.

The substances most likely to be abused were opioids, or pain relievers like OxyContin or Vicodin; central nervous system depressants such as Valium or Xanax; stimulants including Ritalin or Adderall and anabolic-androgenic steroids like Anadrol or Equipoise.

"The problem can be seen in every stage of life: rich and poor, old and young, teens partying or cramming for exams, stressed executives, women juggling the challenges of work and care-giving, seniors struggling with illness and loss, the mentally ill searching for relief, movie stars, rock musicians and athletes," the report said.

It found that between 1992 and 2002, prescriptions written for controlled drugs increased more than 150 percent while the number of people abusing them rose seven times faster than the U.S. population.

In 2003, 2.3 million 12- to 17-year-olds -- almost one in 10 -- abused least one controlled prescription drug. Girls were more likely than boys to be abusers.

Teens who abused drugs were twice as likely to use alcohol, five times as likely to use marijuana, 12 times likelier to use heroin and 21 times likelier to use cocaine than teens who did not abuse such drugs.

The report also found that in 2002, controlled drugs were implicated in almost 30 percent of drug-related emergency room deaths while the number of prescription drug emergency room mentions in hospital logs increased by nearly 80 percent.

Law enforcement officials around the country have been wrestling with an epidemic of prescription drug abuse, especially of powerful pain killers like OxyContin, popularly known as "hillbilly heroin."

The report found a 140 percent rise in self-reported abuse of such pain killers from 1992 to 2003, disproportionately concentrated in the south and west of the country.