ER visits surge for abuse of legal drugs

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In 2008, roughly one million people wound up in the emergency room for abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs — just as many as visited the ER after using illegal substances, according to new data released yesterday by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As the Associated Press reports, the large proportion of legal drug-related ER visits represents a significant increase in recent years — just five years ago twice as many patients were admitted for abuse of illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine, as for legal, over the counter or prescribed medications.

Between 2004 and 2008, the number of emergency room visits specifically for non-medical use of prescription medications surged by 111%, from 144,644 to 305,885. The new CDC assessment, based on data from more than 200 emergency departments at hospitals across the U.S., suggest that abuse of painkillers and sedatives in particular may be driving the trend.

The uptick in ER visits for legal drug abuse coincides with increasing prescriptions for painkillers and other medications, suggesting that many of the emergency patients likely obtained the drugs legally. Earlier this year, a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that hospitalizations for abuse of prescription drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Valium grew by 65% between 1999 and 2006. And previous data from the CDC found that roughly 70,000 American teens overdose each year on common household medications. Last summer, researchers at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that roughly one in five teens said they could get access to prescription drugs — to use for getting high — within an hour.

This latest data adds to an increasingly grim portrait of legal drug abuse in the U.S., and underscore what public health officials identify as a grave problem. As the Associated Press reports, Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, concluded: “The abuse of prescription drugs is our nation’s fastest-growing drug problem.” She added later that a false sense of safety about legal drugs could be contributing to the dangerous trend. “People believe they’re safer because they’re prescribed by doctors and approved by the FDA.”