Prescription drug misuse in America

Laboratory insights into the new drug epidemic from Quest Diagnostics

The 20th century’s War on Drugs focused on curbing the supply and illegal use of dangerous drugs, such as cocaine, marijuana and heroin. While the crisis involving illicit substances continues, a new—and potentially more dangerous— health epidemic has recently emerged: the increasing misuse of legal, heavily regulated prescription medications.

The inappropriate use or diversion of prescription drugs, particularly prescription pain medications, is a national health epidemic. According to the CDC, over 20,000 Americans die each year of prescription drug abuse, 14,800, or 74%, due to misuse of opioid pain medications.1 Opioid pain relievers now account for more overdose deaths than cocaine and heroin combined. In addition, misuse of prescription pain narcotics was responsible for more than 475,000 emergency room visits in 2009 – nearly double the rate five years prior.1 Estimated annual costs related to health, crime and productivity associated with illicit drug use, including prescription drug misuse, total more than $193 billion.2

For those suffering from chronic pain, however, prescription pain medications are often therapeutic necessities. Approximately 116 million Americans suffer from chronic pain – more than the number of people affected by diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined.3 For many people, pain relief can only be achieved through prescription drug therapies.

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