Health community battles prescription drug abuse
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Vicodin, Oxycontin, Xanax and Valium are useful medications for people who are in physical pain or are suffering from anxiety. But they're prescriptions for disaster for people like Mike Scrimo.
"I started getting high on drugs when I was about 11 years old and slowly just progressed to using more drugs, different drugs," said Scrimo, a recovering addict at Phoenix House.
"When I was about 17 I hurt my knee in lacrosse and so that I could still play and not go to the doctors I was taking Vicodins from the medicine cabinet at home."
Alarmed by millions of cases like Scrimo's, the National Institute on Drug Abuse kicked off a public health initiative Tuesday to heighten awareness of the dangers of prescription drug abuse.
"We're collectively mounting this effort in order to try and fend off what could become another public health crisis in this country," said Dr. Alan Leshner, the institute's director.
Representatives from several physicians' and pharmacists' groups joined Leshner at the announcement, many of them underscoring that while the drugs have great power to help, they also can do significant damage.
"I have seen both the wonderful ecstasy that can make a person do things and feel better when medications are used properly, and I've seen the heartbreak and sadness brought on by misuse of medications when it literally broke families apart," said Calvin Anthony of the National Community Pharmacists Association.
The number of new users of prescription painkillers -- without a doctor's approval -- has increased 300 percent since the 1980s. And of the estimated 4 million Americans abusing prescription drugs, Leshner said older adults, adolescents and women are doing so at higher rates.
Seventeen percent of Americans 60 and older are believed to be abusing prescription drugs, he said, while the most dramatic increases in new users are happening among young people from ages 12 to 25.
"We are particularly concerned because their brains are still going through developmental changes and therefore the effects of misusing these drugs could be particularly severe," he added.
While men and women misuse prescription drugs in equal numbers, studies suggest women may be more likely to misuse narcotics and anti-anxiety drugs, NIDA said.
Watching from the front line
Experts warn that people with real chronic pain shouldn't fear they will become addicted if they use these pills properly.
Addicts use these drugs to deal with emotional pain and do anything to get them, including feigning symptoms for refills or seeing more than one doctor for a prescription.
Washington pharmacist Frank Odeh believes it is people on the front line -- doctors and pharmacists -- who can help.
"We can tell they're getting into some kind of trouble once they start bringing prescriptions from different doctors, number one, or asking us not to bill their insurance companies, saying that they just want to pay cash for them. That usually brings up a light bulb to us and we'll usually contact the doctor."
Still, Thomas Menighan of the American Pharmaceutical Association said Tuesday, said there needs to be a better system for dealing with suspected prescription drug abuse.
"Despite our best efforts to balance our roles as health care providers and gatekeepers, we struggle with the lack of a formal process for dealing with incidence of suspected abuse or illegitimate use," he said.
CNN Correspondent Eileen O'Connor and CNN Writer Thurston Hatcher contributed to this report.
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