The White House

Office of the National Drug Control Policy

New Data Reveals a Doubling of Emergency Department Visits Involving Pharmaceutical Abuse

WASHINGTON – According to newly-released national data from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) operated by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), visits to emergency rooms involving misuse or abuse of pharmaceuticals have exceeded visits involving illicit drugs for the third year in a row.

In 2009, there were about 1.2 million visits involving pharmaceuticals, compared to 974,000 involving illicit drugs. In 2007, these numbers were approximately equal. Emergency visits involving illicit drugs have remained stable at just under 1 million per year from 2004 to 2009, while visits involving pharmaceuticals have risen steadily from 627,000 in 2004 to 1.2 million in 2009 – almost doubling [or a 98% increase] over a 5-year period. These visits do not include adverse reactions to pharmaceuticals taken as prescribed.

“The data released by SAMSHA today reinforces what data has been showing us over and over again this past year—the fact that prescription drug abuse is serious, deadly, and a growing problem”, said Gil Kerlikowske, National Drug Policy Director. “These dramatic increases in emergency department visits involving pharmaceuticals underscore the need to double-up our Nation’s effort to prevent and treat prescription drug abuse”.

The 2010 National Drug Control Strategy outlines several steps to address what Director Kerlikowske calls “the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States”—prescription drug abuse.

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 proposed 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.

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.