Prescription drug abuse up sharply

Addiction center report viewed as a `wake-up call to Americans'


WASHINGTON - Prescription drug abuse has skyrocketed among young teens and the American public in general compared with other kinds of drug abuse, according to a report released yesterday.

The report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that 15.1 million Americans, or 6 percent, admit to abusing prescription drugs - more than all other forms of drug abuse combined. About 6 million people, the second-highest amount, admit to abusing cocaine and 4 million admit to abusing hallucinogens, the third-highest number.

Some well-known drugs are the most abused, the report found. Pain relievers OxyContin and Vicodin and depressants Valium and Xanax were abused the most. Ritalin and Adderall, commonly prescribed stimulants that are supposed to help concentration, are also among the most abused prescription drugs.

The 214-page report is the result of a three-year, $1.5 million effort focusing on what the report called America's biggest and fastest-growing drug epidemic. The center said the report was the first of its kind.

"We hope this report will be a wake-up call to Americans," said Joseph Califano, the center's chairman and president and former secretary of health, education and welfare during Jimmy Carter's presidency.

Among the report's findings:

Between 1992 and 2003, when the U.S. population increased 14 percent, the number of people abusing controlled prescription drugs jumped 94 percent.

Between 1992 and 2003, the report found a 212 percent increase in the number of adolescents ranging from 12 to 17 years old who abuse prescription drugs. In 2003, the report found that 2.3 million in this group - 9.3 percent - reported abusing a controlled prescription drug in the year before.

About 43 percent of physicians - who often have little time to spend with patients - do not ask about prescription drug abuse when learning about patients' health history.

The report detailed a number of reasons for the surge in abuse, finding that drugs are more readily available and often overprescribed.

Doctors may be partly to blame, Califano said at a news conference at the National Press Club.

"So much of this is ignorance, carelessness" on the part of doctors, he said. Califano described overfilled waiting rooms and overwhelmed doctors who may prescribe drugs such as OxyContin for moderate pain when it should be used only for more severe problems.

Purdue Pharma, a Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company, commissioned the report and paid for the bulk of it. It signed a contract saying that it would have nothing to do with the findings, however.

The report criticized pharmaceutical companies - and Purdue Pharma specifically - for aggressively promoting OxyContin. Susan Foster, the center's vice president and director of policy research and analysis, said Purdue Pharma was promoting the drug to doctors to use for moderate as well as severe pain. Doctors, she said, are often taking the bait.

Timothy Bannon, a Purdue Pharma spokesman, said the company was pleased with the report and has already taken measures to help combat prescription drug abuse.

The report found that rogue or unregulated Internet pharmacies, patients who "doctor shop" and use other forms of deception to get prescription drugs, and untrained health-care providers are also contributing to the problem.

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