The New Face of Addiction

Monica Saint

There is a new face of addiction in America. No it’s not the urban, mid 30 year old, non-Caucasian, uneducated, jobless, male. The drug is surprisingly not an illegal drug. The new face of American addiction is a white, teenager, suburban junkie. Yes, children from educated backgrounds, from families with solid value systems, and from neighborhoods you may be living in that you thought was safe from drug dealers, overdoses, and drug related crime.

Yes, this may be your American Dream, but in the last decade, the American Dream has quickly become a Suburban Nightmare. To add to this epidemic, the drug that has become a favorite amount young teenagers is not even illegal. We are talking about prescription drug use.

Many times kids don’t even have to leave the safety of their own homes to “score”.  It can start with stealing powerful pain killers like vicodin or percocet from their parent’s drug cabinet.  “I started experimenting with my dad’s pain killers and within 3 months I was completely addicted to them and unable to stop and having terrible withdrawals from them if I didn’t use that day”, says an 18 year old who is now in treatment for his addiction. “It started out wanting to try them out, I didn’t think they were addicting, my dad was prescribed them and I thought they were safe, boy I was wrong”.

“What we are seeing in our program is an epidemic we’ve never seen before”, says Ashley Halker, Program Director at INSynergy in St. Louis. “We’re seeing normal kids from normal backgrounds addicted to pain killers living in fear and feeling like there is no way out”.

It is estimated that more than 50 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. When treating pain, healthcare providers have long wrestled with a dilemma: How to adequately relieve a patient’s suffering, while avoiding the potential for that patient to become addicted to pain killers. (SAMHSA)

The nonmedical use and abuse of prescription drugs is a serious public health problem. Although most people take prescription medications responsibly, an estimated 52 million people (20 percent of those aged 12 and older) have used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons at least once in their lifetimes. Young people are strongly represented in this group. The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey found that about 1 in 12 high school seniors reported past-year nonmedical use of the prescription pain reliever Vicodin in 2010, and 1 in 20 reported abusing OxyContin—making these medications among the most commonly abused drugs by adolescents.

Unintentional overdose deaths involving opioid pain relievers have quadrupled since 1999, and by 2007, outnumbered those involving heroin and cocaine. Just recently, overdose deaths from pain pills overtook deaths from car accidents for the first time in history. More than 37,000 deaths were reported from overdoses from opiate pain pills. The trend continues to climb at frightening rates.

Preventing and recognizing prescription drug abuse

Physicians, their patients, and pharmacists all can play a role in identifying and preventing prescription drug abuse.

Physicians. More than 80 percent of Americans had contact with a healthcare professional in the past year, placing doctors in a unique position, not only to prescribe medications, but also to identify abuse (or nonmedical use) of prescription drugs and prevent the escalation to addiction. Doctors should be alert to the fact that those addicted to prescription drugs may engage in “doctor shopping”—moving from provider to provider—in an effort to obtain multiple prescriptions for the drug(s) they abuse.

Patients. For their part, patients can take steps to ensure that they use prescription medications appropriately: always follow the prescribed directions, be aware of potential interactions with other drugs, never stop or change a dosing regimen without first discussing it with a healthcare provider, and never use another person’s prescription.

Pharmacists. Pharmacists dispense medications and can help patients understand instructions for taking them. By being watchful for prescription falsifications or alterations, pharmacists can serve as the first line of defense in recognizing prescription drug abuse. Some pharmacies have developed hotlines to alert other pharmacies in the region when a fraudulent prescription is detected. Moreover, prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs), which require physicians and pharmacists to log each filled prescription into a State database, can assist medical professionals in identifying patients who are getting prescriptions from multiple sources. As of May 2011, 48 States and 1 territory have enacted legislation authorizing PDMPs, 34 of which are operational. Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs allow physicians and pharmacists to track prescriptions and help identify patients who are “doctor shopping.”

Leaders and addiction specialists hope to change this situation by increasing awareness and promoting additional research on these powerful pain pills. Prescription drug abuse is not a new problem, but one that deserves serious attention, before more faces become memories in scrapbooks.