Rob Horowitz: Let’s Get Serious About Prescription Drug Abuse

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


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Prescription drug abuse is our nation’s fastest-growing drug problem. Yet, so far natonal and state efforts in this area amount to not much more than baby steps. It is time to make prescription drug abuse a priority and launch the comprehensive policy and public education response required to get results.

A recent large national survey of drug use among young people showed that the amount of prescription drugs taken for non-medical reasons is now only exceeded by marijuana use among categories of illicit drugs. In Rhode Island, nearly one-in-five 12th graders have used painkillers without a doctor’s prescription, according to RI Kids Count. Over the period of a month, roughly 7 million Americans use prescription drugs for non-medical reasons.

The overwhelming majority of people who abuse prescription drugs get them from family and friends. These drugs are extremely dangerous in and of themselves and also serve as a gateway to abusing other illegal drugs

The increase in prescription drug abuse stems in large measure from a dramatic rise in the number of prescriptions written for opioid pain relievers such as oxycontin and an even larger increase in the dosages given without accompanying safeguards and education. In 2009, 257 million prescriptions were written—a nearly 50% increase in just ten years. Further, dosages have increased over roughly the same ten year period by more than 400%.

This step-up in potential availability, combined with an increase in the potency of the medicine has triggered an epidemic of abuse. According to the Center for Disease Control & Prevention, nearly 15,000 deaths were attributed to opioid abuse in 2008---more than 3 times as much as just ten years earlier. It is a leading cause of death in Rhode Island.

While some strides have been made nationally and in Rhode Island, making a big dent in the problem requires a far more robust and multi-dimensional policy response. It is true that the Obama Administration through its National Council on Drug Control Policy has developed a comprehensive plan for combating prescription drug abuse that includes 38 sensible and specific action items with a goal of reducing prescription drug abuse by 15% over 5 years. Successful implementation, however, is far from certain since some actions are dependent on gaining funding in a difficult and squeezed federal funding environment; some require legislation or the cooperation of resistant health industry groups and many require often elusive inter-agency cooperation.

In Rhode Island, Attorney General Kilmartin is playing an important educational role and sponsoring useful activities such as a recent drug take back day in which police departments were open throughout the state for people to safely dispose of unused portions of their prescriptions—an important preventive measure since 70% of users of prescription drugs for non-medical purposes get them from family and friends. And the Department of Health has instituted a prescription monitoring program to better track people who are attempting to game the system to get more painkillers than are medically necessary and to better identify Doctors who are over-prescribing (full disclosure: I have done work on prescription drug abuse in New Jersey for a private client).

Still, much more must be done. This includes stepped-up education for parents and kids and expanding on the Attorney General’s efforts with a saturation level advertising campaign aimed at getting more Rhode Islanders to regularly empty their medicine chests of unused prescription drugs. In addition, requiring training of doctors and other health professionals--both in their initial medical education and as a component of ongoing professional education--on how to appropriately prescribe this medicine to minimize the risk of addiction is a must. Despite the precipitous rise of prescription drug abuse, most doctors and other health professionals currently receive little or no training in this area. Lastly, stepped-up criminal penalties for ‘online pharmacies” that provide these kind of drugs illegally should be explored.

We must act with the urgency that this rapidly growing problem demands; otherwise we will continue to lose too many or our kids.

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island


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