Internet growth may be associated with spread of painkiller abuse

Add painkiller abuse to the list of vices for which the Web can potentially be blamed. A new study finds that admission to treatment facilities for prescription drugs has grown in step, roughly, with the spread of high-speed Internet. The association raises the possibility, the authors say, of whether the growth in online pharmacies is driving drug abuse.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Southern California culled data from states on the use of high-speed Internet and admission to substance-abuse facilities for drugs such as narcotic painkillers, stimulants, anxiolytics, and sedative-hypnotics (drugs that a government study showed were easily available online) between 2000 and 2007.

While admission for alcohol, heroin and cocaine grew minimally or declined in those seven years, the researchers calculated that for every 10% increase in Internet use, admission to treatment facilities grew by roughly 1% for narcotics, sedative hypnotics and stimulants. The results were published online Thursday in Health Affairs.

The authors are quick to point out the limitations of their study, stressing that the research doesn’t prove online pharmacies are to blame for the increase in admissions to treatment facilities. They write in the discussion of the paper:


“Our work is hypothesis generating: It raises the possibility that the observed growth in U.S. prescription drug abuse may partially stem from wider Internet availability through online pharmacies that sell prescription drugs illegally.”

Other factors, such as variations in state laws to shut down online pharmacies and changes in data-collection at treatment facilities, could be skewing the results.

Still, they write:

“Based on our findings, recent efforts by the Food and Drug Administration to shut down illegitimate pharmacies not only seem warranted but may also lead to substantial reductions in prescription drug abuse.”

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