Prescription-Drug Abuse Soars; Youth at Forefront

Times Staff Writer

A record 36 million Americans, an increasing number of them young, have at one time misused prescription drugs recreationally, according to a government study released Thursday.

Of the 11 million people estimated to have used prescription drugs non-medically in 2001 alone, nearly half were younger than 25, according to a national household survey conducted by the government's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Nearly 3 million adolescents ages 12 to 17 used prescription drugs for recreational purposes or other nonmedical reasons at least once, according to the annual survey.

The findings highlight a burgeoning public health crisis -- the use of highly addictive but commonly prescribed painkillers, tranquilizers, stimulants and sedatives for nonmedical purposes -- that is spreading most rapidly among youth.

The number of Americans using prescription painkillers for the first time jumped from 400,000 in 1984 to more than 2 million in 2000, the survey showed. The estimates were based on questionnaires given to 69,000 people 12 years and older by the agency, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. "People perceive a prescription drug as safer, cleaner and healthier than heroin or other illicit drugs," said Dr. H. Westley Clark, a director at the substance abuse agency.

To battle that misperception, the Department of Health and Human Services is launching television, radio and print ads and brochures aimed at teenagers, warning that even a single pill can lead to a dangerous addiction or even death. One of the taglines warns, "The buzz takes your breath away."

In contrast with other strategies employed in its war on drugs, the U.S. government is stressing awareness and prevention of the problem over punishment.

"If prevention fails, then treatment becomes critical," Clark said.

Emergency room visits related to the abuse of painkillers more than doubled from 1994 to 2001, from 41,687 to 90,232, according to a separate survey by the Drug Abuse Warning Network, a public health system within HHS that monitors drug-related medical emergencies.

The painkillers most commonly cited for abuse were hydrocodone, oxycodone and methadone. The name-brand drug Vicodin contains hydrocodone; Percocet contains oxycodone; and methadone is a legal substitute for heroin.

Among teenagers and young adults, prescription painkillers were the most often abused, according to government research. Besides Vicodin and Percocet, name-brand versions of these drugs include OxyContin, Percodan, Demerol and Darvon.

Among young adults, whites were more likely to have misused prescription drugs than Latinos, blacks or Asians. Teenage girls were more likely than boys to have abused the drugs, but for those 18 and older, the opposite was true.

At a news conference Thursday, Kyle Moores, 19, of Manassas, Va., described his struggle to overcome an addiction to oxycodone, which he used to buy from a classmate.

"It put me in a zombie mode for a year and a half," he said. "Personally I don't think it should be prescribed because of how addictive it is."

But Clark stressed a different point -- that prescription drugs are safe and effective when used correctly under a physician's care.

"The misuse of prescription [drugs] can have tragic consequences, the first of which is to stigmatize the legitimate use of medications," he said. "The most important thing to keep in mind is that these medications have a legitimate therapeutic purpose."

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