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Widespread Use Of Prescription Drugs Provides Ample Supply For Abuse

Nearly half of Americans 12 and older take sedatives, stimulants, painkillers or tranquilizers.
Izabela Habur
Getty Images
Nearly half of Americans 12 and older take sedatives, stimulants, painkillers or tranquilizers.

Almost half of all Americans take prescription painkillers, tranquilizers, stimulants or sedatives, according to results of a federal survey released Thursday. The prevalent use of these drugs could help explain why millions of Americans end up misusing or abusing them.

Last year, for the first time, the government's National Survey on Drug Use decided to ask the people it interviewed about all uses of prescription medicines, not just inappropriate use. The survey found that 119 million Americans age 12 and over took prescription psychotherapeutic drugs. That's 45 percent of the population.

Of those, about 19 million Americans didn't follow a prescription. Most misuse involved people who acquired the drugs from friends or family. More than a third had a prescription but took those drugs excessively. And about 5 percent bought drugs from a dealer or stranger.

All told, 16 percent of all prescription drug use was actually misuse, according to the report.

There's no question that these drugs help alleviate pain and suffering for millions of Americans. But it's also clear that the system encourages overuse.

"Any of us go to the doctor and feel like we don't get our money's worth if we don't come out with a prescription, right?" Kim Johnson told Shots. She is director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at the federal .

"Just like any drug, the more it's out there, the more it's available, the more likely it is to be abused," she said. And many of these drugs pose an additional risk because of their physical effects, including in some cases their addictive properties.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is trying to reform prescribing practices, particularly for opioid drugs, to reduce the overuse of these pain medications. The new survey also documents the dire need for affordable and accessible treatment options.

"One in 12 people aged 12 or over needed treatment for substance use disorder, yet nearly 90 percent of those people didn't get specialty treatment that could have helped them toward recovery," said Kana Enomoto, SAMHSA's principal deputy administrator, at a news conference.

That need for treatment pertains not just to prescription drug abuse but to street drugs such as heroin.

"We need to expand access to treatment and we need to do it now," said Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "Because, like every other disease, people who want treatment should be able to get it. And it should not be dependent on where they live or how much money they have."

President Obama's budget for fiscal year 2017 called for more than $1 billion to expand access to drug treatment, but Congress has not acted on it.

You can email correspondentRichard Harris.

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Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.