WASHINGTON — Four million Americans abuse prescription drugs, frequently becoming addicted to stimulants, pain killers or sedatives in what experts say could become a public health crisis.
"This is a dangerous new drug-abuse trend," said Alan I. Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "While prescription drugs can relieve a variety of medical problems and improve the lives of millions of Americans, they can be dangerous, addicting and even deadly when used nonmedically."
At a news conference Tuesday, Leshner and leaders in the prescription drug field announced a new campaign to educate the public about the dangers of addiction and abuse of pharmaceuticals such as sedatives, stimulants, tranquilizers, pain killers and opioids.
Leshner said that while everybody can potentially abuse prescription drugs, the risk is greatest among women, the elderly and adolescents.
He said a 1999 study showed that of the 4 million people who used prescriptions for nonmedical purposes, half were abusing the medications for the first time that year. This shows prescription abuse is growing, he said.
The study suggested that about 17 percent of Americans age 60 and older are affected by prescription-drug abuse. Leshner said that is because this age group uses about three times more of the drugs than do young people.
Women, said Leshner, are two to three times as likely to be diagnosed as needing drugs, such as sedatives, and are about two times as likely to become addicted.
Prescription drug abuse among adolescents, age 12 to 17, and among young adults, 18 to 25, is particularly damaging to health because "their brains are still developing" and the effects of overuse of the drugs can be "particularly severe," said Leshner.
Leshner said people who abuse prescription drugs are generally of a different population group than those who use street drugs, such as heroin, crack or cocaine. He estimated there are about 5 million "hard-core street addicts."
On the Net: NIDA: www.drugabuse.gov