4 Shocking Facts About Prescription Drug Abuse in America

I’m a child of the 1980s. That means America has been embroiled in a costly and violent “War on Drugs” for my entire life. After billions of dollars spent, thousands of lives lost, and millions ruined by long-term imprisonment, you’d think we’d be close to ending this decades long war–but we’re not. Not even close. In fact, there’s compelling evidence to suggest that we’ve actually overlooked the real enemy all along.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), rates of death by drug overdose have more than tripled since 1990, but the deceased weren’t smoking crack or shooting heroin into their veins. They’re not even unemployed and homeless. In fact, most of them look like normal citizens. Why? Because most of these skyrocketing deaths are caused by perfectly legal prescription drugs.

Prescription drug abuse is something we rarely hear about, unless it’s prompted by the death of a celebrity. With Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, Whitney Houston and Cory Monteith all meeting an early demise thanks to legal substances, some have begun to take a hard look at the statistics of prescription drug abuse in America. The numbers don’t lie, and what they prove is horrifying.

4 Shocking Facts About Prescription Drugs Abuse in America

1. In the United States, drug overdose was the leading cause of injury death in 2010. Amongst people aged between 25 and 64 years old, drug overdose caused more deaths than motor vehicle traffic crashes. Perhaps most shocking is how quickly drug abuse is escalating among people in their fifties. ”This is, at least in part, due to the aging of the baby boomers, whose rates of illicit drug use have historically been higher than those of previous cohorts,” explains NIDA. But seniors aren’t the only ones experimenting with prescription drugs. Every day in the United States, an average of 2,000 teenagers use prescription drugs without a doctor’s guidance for the first time.

2. Almost any prescription drug can be abused, but these two are the big killers: Opioids and benzodiazepines. Opiods are psychoactive chemicals that resemble morphine or other opiates in its pharmacological effects, and are most commonly found in pain killers. Benzodiazepines have sedative, hypnotic (sleep-inducing), anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), euphoric, anticonvulsant, and muscle relaxant properties. And where are Americans getting these fatal drugs? Not from pharmacy thefts or black market drug dealers, but from doctors who look forward to the repeat business an addict provides. “Opioids are more readily being prescribed in the past decade than ever previously before by doctors to patients, often without consideration of the severity of their condition, their state of mental health, and alternative medications and options,” reports Tufts University. The same thing holds true for Benzodiazepines.

3. Rampant prescription drug abuse is costing us big: “In the United States, prescription opioid abuse costs [alone] were about $55.7 billion in 2007. Of this amount, 46% was attributable to workplace costs (e.g., lost productivity), 45% to healthcare costs (e.g., abuse treatment), and 9% to criminal justice costs,” reports the CDC.

4. Certain demographic groups are more inclined to the abuse of medical substances (and not the ones you think): Among those who died from drug overdose in 2010, men were nearly twice as likely as women to die; American Indians/Alaska Natives had the highest death rate, followed by whites and then blacks; The highest death rates were among people 45-49 years of age. Geography and socioeconomic status also play a role in risk, as the southwestern United States and the Appalachian regions have seen the greatest impact from prescription drug use, particularly in West Virginia and New Mexico.

With all of this addiction, injury and death directly linked to the over-prescription of “medicines” you’d think the War on Drugs would include pharmaceutical companies, doctors and the health insurance industry. But it doesn’t. Instead, the U.S. government forks over huge subsidies to these companies, who then price-gouge customers until their drugs go generic–then incentivize doctors to over-prescribe so they can continue to rake in the profits.

Do you really want to keep kids off drugs and win the drug war? Well its time to take a long hard look at whats in your very own medicine cabinet.

prescription drug abuse infographic

Lead image via Thinkstock, infographic via Best Drug Rehabilitation


Tipu S
Tipu S7 months ago

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Thomas Morrison
Tracey Morrison2 years ago

Your work is super-duper really; I am genuinely pleasant from your working. Thanks for imparting us good knowledge.

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Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson3 years ago

Big Pharmaceutical companies needs to accept their responsibility in all deaths.

Bryon S.
Bryon S3 years ago

I wish care2 would post a blog about how antidepressant drugs are causing all the mass murders in schools and all over the US. The black box warnings of those drugs are suicide, psychosis and violent behavior...a perfect combination to cause people to change into murderous crazies. Let's make big pharma accountable for the deaths of thousands of people from their dangerous drugs.

Marie W.
Marie W3 years ago

Such old news- that no one knows.

PrimaSICK B.
PrimaAWAY B3 years ago


Nimue P.

Not surprising.

Sylvia B.
Sylvia B3 years ago

A couple years ago, I had an abscess return and went to the ER to have it lanced. The people there said there was not much they could do, but give me some Vicodin until I could get to my surgeon the next day. After I was able to get to my surgeon and have the abscess lanced, the surgeon gave me yet another prescription for Vicodin, enough to kill an elephant. I returned the second prescription and only used the original one that had less pills, as I did not need that many. Plus, using narcotics gives me horrible nausea.

It is all too easy to get prescription pain medications, and opiates of any kind are particularity nasty when considering how easy it is to get addicted to them, especially for people who have a history of alcohol or substance abuse running through their family trees. Also, the current model of non-holistic medicine along with "better living through chemistry" thinking contributes a considerable part in the amount of people who abuse drugs.

Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa3 years ago

Thank you

Alberta Getleman
Alberta Getleman3 years ago