Prescription drug abuse in the United States has rapidly become a top public health concern that requires a full-scale response. Over the last two decades, the magnitude of the issue has dramatically increased. Today, approximately 6.1 million Americans abuse or misuse prescription drugs and sales from prescription painkillers have quadrupled since 1999.
We’ve seen that while these drugs can be a miracle for many, misuse can have dire consequences, and we have an extreme need to address the treatment gap for those who are misusing prescription drug – only one in ten Americans with a substance abuse disorder is currently receiving treatment. Deaths related to prescription drugs now outnumber those from heroin and cocaine combined, and drug overdose deaths – a majority of which are from prescription drugs – exceed motor vehicle-related deaths in 29 states and Washington, D.C. In the U.S., 50 people die each day from prescription drug overdoses, with the Appalachia and Southwest regions of the country contributing to the highest overdose death rates.
At the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), we realize our work to improve public health cannot succeed unless we can move people from apathy to alarm and from alarm into action. As part of the Clinton Health Matters Initiative’s (CHMI) strategy to reduce prescription drug abuse and misuse across the country by building strategic partnerships, we wanted to bring our knowledge and experience to the table to build awareness and provide recommendations, and so we made a Commitment to Action with CHMI to help address the issue.
As part of our commitment, we issued a new report that grades states on their adoption of promising strategies to curb prescription drug abuse. Our research finds that 28 states and Washington D.C. scored six or less out of the 10 indicators we used. Research for the report also shows the number of drug overdose deaths has doubled in 29 states since 1999.
Our work also finds that just over one-third of states have a law in place to expand access to naloxone – a prescription drug that can be effective in counteracting an overdose. Further, laws that provide a degree of immunity from criminal charges for individuals seeking to help themselves or others experiencing an overdose are only in place in 17 states and Washington D.C.
Beyond documenting our country’s struggle with prescription drug abuse and misuse, the report includes a series of recommendation on how, together, we can work to address this tragedy. Some of our recommendations include:
- Educating the public to understand the risks of prescription drug use to avoid misuse in the first place.
- Ensuring responsible prescribing practices, including increasing education of healthcare providers and prescribers.
- Improving, modernizing, and fully funding Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, so they are real-time, interstate, and incorporated into Electronic Health Records, to quickly identify patients in need of treatment and connect them with appropriate care and identify doctor shoppers and problem prescribers.
- Making rescue medications more widely available by increasing access for at risk individuals to naloxone and provide immunity for individuals and others seeking help.
A comprehensive approach to combat this growing epidemic starts with identifying how widespread prescription drug abuse and misuse has become. From there we must act to improve education and prevention while also expanding and modernizing treatment. By building partnerships across communities, we can provide the strong public health response necessary to curb this crisis.