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The prescription drug epidemic in the United States: A perfect storm


Jane Carlisle Maxwell PhD, Senior Research Scientist. Dr Jane Carlisle Maxwell, Addiction Research Institute, School of Social Work, The University of Texas at Austin, 1717 West 6th Street, Suite 335, Austin, TX 78703, USA. Tel: +1 512 232 0610; Fax: +1 512 232 0617; E-mail:


Introduction and Aims.Abuse of prescription analgesics in the USA is increasing. The epidemic has been driven by many factors, including marketing strategies, incorrect prescribing practices, a variety of legal and illegal drug sources, belated governmental responses and increases in the number of prescriptions written.

Design and Methods.Data sources including surveys, emergency room visits, treatment admissions, overdose deaths, toxicology laboratory findings and journal articles were examined to identify trends.

Results.The surveys and emergency department visits show use lowest among young teenagers and highest among older teenagers and young adults, with significant increases among those aged 55 and older. The length of time between initial use of an opioid other than heroin and admission to treatment is shortening. Mortality data and toxicology exhibits confirm the increases and show the variation in the prevalence of various drugs across the USA.

Discussion and Conclusions.Abuse is increasing, with varying patterns of use by high-risk groups and different geographic preferences. Prescription drug monitoring programs are being developed in each of the US states to deter ‘doctor shopping’; the Food and Drug Administration has increased authority over manufacturers; and options for proper disposal of leftover medications exist. There is increased emphasis on responsible prescribing including risk assessments, prescribing agreements, treatment plans, and training for clinicians, as well as monitoring the interactions with benzodiazepines. However, unless these efforts decrease diversion, abuse and addiction, clinicians may lose the ability to use some of these opioids for effective pain management or so many barriers will be raised that pain will go undertreated or untreated.[Maxwell JC. The prescription drug epidemic in the United States: A perfect storm. Drug Alcohol Rev 2011;30:264–270]