ER Visits Increase for Prescription Drug Use

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If hospital emergency room visits are any indication, prescription drugs are replacing illicit drugs as America’s preferred vice.

A new government report shows the number of hospital visits involving prescription drug abuse or misuse has doubled over the past five years, with patients aged 20 or younger accounting for nearly 20 percent of all drug-related emergency room visits in 2009. For three years in a row, the number of hospital visits due to abuse or misuse of these pharmaceuticals – with Alprazolam (Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug), oxycodone products (pain relievers), respiratory system drugs and antidepressants used most prevalently by youths – has surpassed visits due to illicit drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

The information comes from the 2009 Drug Abuse Warning Network report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and has helped fuel an Obama administration crackdown on prescription drug abuse. 

Of the 20 and younger population, there were nearly 170,000 pharmaceutical-driven emergency room visits in 2009, up from roughly 117,000 in 2004, meaning the youth population’s increase is not as high as the growth seen among the overall population. 

The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) is using this report to advance a few of President Barack Obama’s initiatives over the past year, including last October’s passage of the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act, which promotes local efforts to facilitate families’ disposal of prescription drugs. According to an ONDCP press statement, other Obama prescription drug abuse prevention initiatives include advocating for the expansion of prescription drug monitoring programs from current operations in 34 states to all 50 states; a 2011 budget recommendation to educate prescribers how to warn patients about risks of dependence; and ONDCP aiding state investigations into the criminal activity surrounding the prescription drug business.

In a discussion section at the end of the SAMHSA report, the authors list a few public health challenges that the findings call attention to, including “pharmaceuticals do not have the stigma of being illegal, and therefore health educators must change the perception that pharmaceutical drugs are safe to use recreationally.”