Why Prescription Drug Abuse is So Prevalent

Unveiling the prevalence of prescription drug abuse. Discover the motivations, factors, and efforts to address this public health concern.

By Alis Behavioral Health Staff

July 9, 2024

The Landscape of Prescription Drug Misuse

Prescription drug misuse has become a significant public health concern, particularly among young adults. According to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), approximately 10.1% of American adults aged 18-25 reported prescription drug misuse in the last year [1]. The motivations behind this misuse and the prevalence of its occurrence shed light on the reasons why prescription drugs are commonly abused.

Public Health Concerns

The misuse of prescription drugs poses substantial risks to public health. These medications, when used improperly or without a legitimate medical purpose, can lead to severe health consequences, addiction, and even overdose. Prescription drug misuse has been associated with increased emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and mortality rates, emphasizing the urgency of addressing this issue.

Motivations for Misuse

There are various motivations that contribute to the misuse of prescription drugs, particularly among young adults. Experimentation is a common factor, driven by the desire to explore new experiences and facilitated by the wide availability of these drugs [1]. Additionally, the normalization of prescription drug misuse in social circles has played a significant role in its prevalence. It has become ingrained in some social circles, leading to the perception that it is a common and acceptable way to manage school, leisure, and boredom.

The motivations for prescription drug misuse can vary depending on the type of drug. For example, prescription stimulants are frequently misused by young adults to cope with the pressures to achieve high levels of productivity in various areas of life, such as school and work [1]. On the other hand, prescription painkillers are often misused to induce intense relaxation and enhance the experience of mundane activities, such as watching a movie or playing video games [1].

Understanding the motivations behind prescription drug misuse is crucial for developing effective prevention and intervention strategies. By addressing the public health concerns associated with prescription drug misuse and targeting the underlying motivations, we can work towards reducing its prevalence and mitigating its negative impact on individuals and society as a whole.

If you're interested in learning more about different types of addictions, check out our article on most commonly used drugs and most addictive drugs [infographic].

Factors Contributing to Prescription Drug Abuse

When examining the prevalence of prescription drug abuse, it is essential to consider the various factors that contribute to this issue. Understanding these factors can shed light on why prescription drugs are commonly abused.

Normalization of Misuse

One significant factor contributing to the widespread misuse of prescription drugs is the normalization of this behavior. According to research, the normalization of prescription drug misuse in social circles has contributed to its prevalence, making it seem like a common way of managing school, leisure, and boredom. The acceptance of drug use in society, influenced by factors such as decriminalization, legalization, and media influence, can contribute to increased rates of addiction [2]. This normalization can lead individuals, especially young adults, to perceive prescription drug misuse as a normal part of their social environment.

Societal Pressures

Societal pressures also play a role in prescription drug abuse. Factors such as academic or work-related stress, peer pressure, and the desire to enhance performance can drive individuals to turn to prescription drugs for relief or to gain an advantage. Experimentation is a common motivation for prescription drug misuse among young adults, facilitated by the wide availability of these drugs and the desire to share new experiences. The societal acceptance of drugs, influenced by various factors including the decriminalization and legalization of certain substances, can shape perceptions and contribute to increased experimentation and misuse.

Availability and Accessibility

The availability and accessibility of prescription drugs also contribute to their widespread misuse. Prescription drugs are often readily available through legitimate prescriptions, and they can be obtained through illegal means, such as purchasing them from others or obtaining counterfeit versions. Additionally, the internet has made it easier for individuals to access prescription drugs without a valid prescription, further increasing their availability [1]. The ease of access, coupled with the perception that prescription drugs are safer than illicit drugs, can lead to higher rates of misuse.

To address the factors contributing to prescription drug abuse, it is crucial to implement comprehensive strategies that focus on prevention, education, and intervention. By promoting responsible use, providing accurate information about the risks associated with prescription drug misuse, and increasing awareness about the dangers of normalization and societal pressures, we can work towards reducing the prevalence of prescription drug abuse.

Types of Prescription Drugs Misused

Prescription drug misuse encompasses various types of medications that are taken without a valid prescription or used in a manner different from what is prescribed. Understanding the different categories of prescription drugs that are commonly misused can shed light on why this issue is so prevalent.

Prescription Stimulants

Prescription stimulants, such as those commonly used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), are often misused by young adults to cope with pressures to achieve high levels of productivity in various areas of life, such as school and work. These medications, which include drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, work by increasing dopamine levels in the brain, leading to improved focus and attention.

While prescription stimulants can be effective when used as prescribed, misuse can have severe consequences. Abuse of these drugs can cause heart problems, seizures, panic attacks, paranoia, and even violent behavior. The risks are further amplified when stimulants are mixed with other substances, including over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines [3].

Prescription Painkillers

Prescription painkillers, also known as opioids, are frequently misused by young adults to experience intense relaxation and enhance the enjoyment of mundane activities, such as watching a movie or playing video games. These medications, which include drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone, are commonly prescribed to manage moderate to severe pain.

Opioids are highly effective at relieving pain, but they also carry a high risk of misuse and dependence. Misuse of prescription painkillers can lead to mood and behavior changes, trouble thinking clearly, breathing problems, and even coma or death. The risk is significantly increased when opioids are taken in combination with other substances like alcohol, antihistamines, or central nervous system depressants.

Opioids and Sedatives

In addition to prescription painkillers, sedatives are another category of prescription drugs that are frequently misused. Sedatives, also known as central nervous system (CNS) depressants, are prescribed to treat anxiety, sleep disorders, and seizures. Common examples include benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium.

Misuse of CNS depressants can result in symptoms such as sleepiness, uncoordination, confusion, slurred speech, slowed breathing, and even seizures when abruptly stopped or reduced too quickly. When combined with other substances, including alcohol or other medicines, CNS depressants can significantly slow down a person's heartbeat and breathing, potentially leading to fatal consequences.

Understanding the types of prescription drugs that are frequently misused provides insight into the reasons behind the prevalence of prescription drug abuse. It is crucial to raise awareness about the risks associated with these medications and promote responsible use to mitigate the negative consequences of prescription drug misuse.

Historical Context of Prescription Drug Abuse

Understanding the historical context of prescription drug abuse provides valuable insights into the prevalence of this issue. Over time, different waves of misuse and regulatory efforts have shaped the landscape of prescription drug abuse.

Waves of Misuse

The first wave of pharmaceutical drug abuse in America occurred in the late 19th century. During this period, the increased medical use of morphine and cocaine led to drug dependence among White, middle-class individuals. The consequences of this wave prompted the first widespread antidrug campaigns in America, ultimately resulting in the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. This legislation made opiates and cocaine America's first prescription-only drugs.

The second wave of pharmaceutical drug abuse in America spanned from the 1920s to the 1970s. It focused on the abuse of barbiturates and amphetamines. Regulatory efforts were made to restrict these drugs to prescription-only status, but the regulations were weaker compared to those for opiates and cocaine. This led to continued mass medical use and the emergence of growing illicit markets.

Currently, America is experiencing the third wave of pharmaceutical drug misuse and dependence. This wave is primarily concentrated among White, working-class, and middle-class Americans. Nonmedical prescription drug use is now more prevalent than the use of any illicit drug except marijuana. Various responses have been implemented to address this issue, including voluntary measures, supply-side measures, heightened regulation, law enforcement measures, and public health responses.

Regulatory Efforts

Regulatory efforts have played a crucial role in addressing prescription drug abuse throughout history. The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 marked the first significant regulatory response to the misuse of opiates and cocaine. This legislation restricted access to these drugs and established them as prescription-only substances.

However, regulatory efforts faced challenges during the second wave of pharmaceutical drug abuse. The regulations for barbiturates and amphetamines were not as stringent as those for opiates and cocaine, leading to continued medical use and the growth of illicit markets. This highlighted the need for stronger regulations to control the misuse of prescription drugs.

In recent years, the regulatory landscape has evolved to combat the ongoing third wave of prescription drug misuse. Efforts have been made to address overprescribing and inappropriate marketing practices. However, there have been instances where regulatory oversights occurred, contributing to the current opioid crisis. For example, the FDA's failures in properly enforcing the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act allowed the approval and promotion of opioids for conditions where their use was more likely to harm than help. These regulatory challenges highlight the importance of ongoing vigilance and effective regulation to prevent and address prescription drug abuse.

Understanding the historical waves of misuse and the regulatory efforts taken provides a deeper understanding of the complexities surrounding prescription drug abuse. By acknowledging the lessons learned from the past, policymakers and healthcare professionals can work towards more effective strategies to prevent and address this prevalent issue.

Addressing Prescription Drug Misuse

To combat the pervasive issue of prescription drug misuse, it is imperative to implement effective strategies and interventions. Addressing this problem requires a comprehensive public health response and targeted intervention strategies.

Public Health Response

A robust public health response is crucial in curbing prescription drug misuse. This response involves various stakeholders, including government agencies, healthcare professionals, community organizations, and individuals. Public health initiatives aim to raise awareness, provide education, and promote prevention efforts.

One key aspect of the public health response is increasing awareness about the risks and consequences of prescription drug misuse. This includes educating the public about the potential dangers of these medications and the importance of using them only as prescribed. Awareness campaigns, school programs, and community outreach efforts play a vital role in disseminating this information.

Additionally, public health initiatives focus on improving access to treatment and recovery services for individuals struggling with prescription drug misuse. This involves expanding resources for addiction treatment, implementing harm reduction strategies, and promoting access to medically assisted treatment. Syringe exchange programs, overdose prevention initiatives, and community-based support systems are critical components of these efforts.

Intervention Strategies

In addition to a public health response, intervention strategies are crucial in addressing prescription drug misuse. These strategies aim to identify individuals at risk, provide support for those in need, and prevent further progression of misuse.

One effective intervention strategy is screening and brief intervention. This involves healthcare professionals screening individuals for potential substance misuse and providing brief counseling or referral to appropriate treatment services. This approach allows for early identification and intervention, helping individuals address their misuse before it escalates.

Another crucial intervention strategy is the integration of medication-assisted treatment (MAT). MAT combines the use of FDA-approved medications, such as methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone, with counseling and behavioral therapies. This comprehensive approach helps individuals manage withdrawal symptoms, reduce cravings, and address the underlying factors contributing to prescription drug misuse.

Furthermore, community-based interventions play a vital role in addressing prescription drug misuse. These interventions focus on promoting healthy behaviors, providing support networks, and encouraging community involvement. Community coalitions, support groups, and prevention programs contribute to creating a supportive environment that discourages drug misuse.

By implementing a multifaceted approach that combines public health initiatives and intervention strategies, it is possible to make significant strides in addressing prescription drug misuse. Collaboration among individuals, healthcare providers, policymakers, and community organizations is essential to creating a comprehensive response that effectively addresses this pressing issue.

Prevention and Control Measures

To combat the prevalence of prescription drug abuse, various prevention and control measures have been implemented. These measures involve drug monitoring programs, manufacturer regulations, and the roles of healthcare professionals.

Drug Monitoring Programs

Prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) have emerged as vital tools in preventing and identifying prescription drug misuse. PDMPs involve the collection and analysis of prescribing and dispensing data to monitor the use of controlled substances. By tracking prescription data, these programs can identify patterns of overuse, doctor shopping, and potential misuse of prescription drugs [6].

The implementation of PDMPs has shown promising results, with some states associated with lower rates of opioid prescribing and overdose due to the utilization of these programs. Physicians, pharmacists, and other healthcare professionals can access PDMPs to assess a patient's prescription history and make informed decisions regarding the appropriate use of medications.

Manufacturer Regulations

Manufacturers are actively working on developing abuse-deterrent formulations (ADF) for opioid medications. These formulations aim to prevent misuse by altering the drug's physical and chemical properties, making it less desirable or more difficult to abuse through snorting or injection. ADF opioids have demonstrated effectiveness in decreasing the illicit value of drugs and deterring misuse.

Additionally, medication regulation plays a crucial role in reducing the prescribing of opioid medications. Stricter guidelines and regulations for prescribing opioids have been implemented to prevent excessive prescribing and monitor the appropriate use of these medications. These regulations help ensure that prescriptions are only provided when necessary and in appropriate quantities.

Healthcare Professional Roles

Healthcare professionals, including physicians, pharmacists, and other providers, play a crucial role in preventing prescription drug misuse. They can contribute to prevention efforts by:

  • Tailoring prescription length: It is essential to consider the duration of the prescription when prescribing opioids. Studies have shown that the risk of continued opioid use significantly increases with longer prescription durations. Tailoring the prescription length to the patient's specific needs and condition can help minimize the risk of ongoing use and potential addiction [7].
  • Educating patients: Healthcare professionals should educate patients about the risks associated with prescription drug misuse and the importance of proper medication disposal. Informing patients about the potential dangers of combining prescription drugs with alcohol or other substances is also crucial in prevention efforts.
  • Monitoring patient use: Healthcare professionals should closely monitor patients who are prescribed potentially addictive medications and assess their response to treatment. Identifying signs of misuse, such as seeking early refills or reporting excessive pain, can help intervene and provide appropriate support or alternative treatment options.
  • Guiding proper disposal: Patients should be properly educated about the safe disposal of unused or expired medications. Following FDA guidelines or utilizing DEA collection sites for medication disposal can help prevent the diversion and misuse of prescription drugs.

By implementing these prevention and control measures, healthcare professionals can make a significant impact in reducing the prevalence of prescription drug abuse. Collaborative efforts between healthcare providers, policymakers, and the community are essential in addressing this public health concern and promoting safe and responsible prescription drug use.


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