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Office of the National Drug Control Policy

National Drug Control Policy Director Outlines Plan of Action to Address Fast-Growing Problem of Prescription Drug Abuse

WASHINGTON – Calling prescription drug abuse “the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States,” National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske, in testimony today before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, stated that swift action is needed to address the problem.

Among the actions called for by Director Kerlikowske are increased prescriber education, educating parents and teenagers about the dangers of prescription drug abuse, and expanding the use of prescription drug take-back programs to reduce the diversion of unused drugs in America’s households.

“The National Drug Control Strategy provides a blueprint for reducing prescription drug abuse. Parents, law enforcement, the medical community, and all levels of government have a role to play in reducing prescription drug abuse,” Director Kerlikowske, of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), said.

In his testimony, Kerlikowske said that several recent studies show the startling increase in prescription drug abuse. The 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that in recent years the number of individuals who, for the first time, consumed prescription drugs for non-medical purposes exceeded the number of first-time marijuana users. Monitoring the Future, a study of youth attitudes and drug use, shows that seven of the top 10 drugs commonly reported abused by 12th graders are prescription drugs. And another study, the 2007 Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS), showed that from 1997 to 2007, there was a 400 percent increase in treatment admissions for individuals abusing prescription pain killers.

“More than 26,000 Americans died from unintentional drug overdoses in 2006, and prescription drugs – particularly opioid painkillers – are considered a major contributor to the total number of drug deaths,” Kerlikowske said.

Kerlikowske said one factor contributing to the problem is easy access to pharmaceutical products. Among persons age 12 and older in 2007-2008 who used pain relievers for non-medical reasons in the past 12 months, 55.9 percent got the pain relievers they most recently used from a friend or relative for free. Another 8.9 percent bought the drugs from a friend or relative, and 5.4 percent took them from a friend or relative without asking.

Because the drugs are legal and dispensed for legitimate purposes, the public policy response “must strike a balance between our desire to minimize diversion and abuse of pharmaceuticals and the need to maximize their legitimate benefits,” Kerlikowske said.

The National Drug Control Strategy, released in May, outlines several steps to address the issue, Kerlikowske said. They include:

  • Increasing prescription drug return, take-back, and disposal programs. Prescription drugs that are commonly abused are often found in the family medicine cabinet and individuals should get rid of unused or expired prescription drugs to prevent diversion and abuse.
  • Educating physicians about opiate painkiller prescribing. The Administration’s FY 2011 Budget request proposes funding for a program to train prescribers on how to instruct patients in the use and proper disposal of painkillers, to observe signs of dependence, and to use prescription drug monitoring programs to detect when an individual is going from doctor to doctor in search of prescriptions (also called “doctor shopping”) .
  • Expanding prescription drug monitoring programs. Currently, these programs are operating in 34 states. The Administration supports establishment of these programs in every state, and is seeking to ensure new and existing monitoring programs effectively use the data they acquire and share information across state lines.
  • Assisting states in addressing doctor-shopping and pill mills. Criminal organizations have established thriving businesses of transporting people to states with little regulation to obtain prescription drugs from multiple doctors or from pill mills, which distribute drugs indiscriminately. Federal, state, local, and tribal authorities are working together to address this problem.
  • Drive illegal Internet pharmacies out of business.
  • Crack down on rogue pain clinics that do not follow appropriate prescription practices.

Kerlikowske said one important goal of the Administration’s prescription drug initiative is to change public perception about the potential harms of prescription drug misuse and abuse. “Too often, the public’s perception is that prescription drugs are safe for uses other than those for which they are prescribed,” he said. “We must change public perception so the societal norm shifts to one that ensures public health and safety and that unused or expired medications are disposed of in a timely, safe, and environmentally responsible manner.”

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