In the past 20 years, as the use of prescription painkillers has risen significantly in the United States, abuse of prescription drugs has become a major public health concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 80 percent of misused and abused controlled substances originate as legal prescriptions. According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health, an estimated 2.4 million Americans—an average of 6,600 people perday—used prescription drugs nonmedically for the first time in the past year.

Prescription drug overdoses now account for more than half of deaths from drug overdose, which recently surpassed motor vehicle accidents
as the leading cause of death from unintentional injury. Opioids accounted for nearly three-quarters of prescription drug overdoses and nearly 60 percent of drug overdose deaths in 2010—far exceeding deaths from any other drug or class of drugs, legal or illicit.

The human and societal costs of prescription drug abuse extend far beyond the cost of overdose deaths. Prescription drug abuse places a tremendous burden on the nation’s health, social service, public safety, and criminal justice systems. The CDC reports that for every death from prescription painkillers, there are 10 hospital admissions for abuse, 32 emergency room visits for misuse or abuse, 130 people who abuse or are dependent, and 825 people using the drugs for nonmedical reasons. Rates of emergency room visits associated with prescription drug abuse increased 114 percent from 2004 to 2011. Substance abuse treatment admission rates for opioid analgesic abuse increased six-fold from 1999-2010.


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