The Prescription Painkiller Epidemic in America

The Prescription Painkiller Epidemic in America

America is currently in the middle of a very serious and deadly epidemic. As a matter of fact, it’s been going on for years, and on average, kills more people per year than car accidents. But this epidemic isn’t a disease or outbreak: it’s the abuse of prescription painkillers.

Painkiller Epidemic: By the Numbers

According to the Washington Post, nearly 60 percent of Americans were actively taking prescription drugs in 2015 – the highest percentage to date. Nearly 3 in 5 American adults in this time period were taking a prescription drug, up markedly since 2000.

In recent years, this number has only climbed. According to NPR, “nearly half of all Americans over the age of 12 take prescription pain relievers, tranquilizers, sedatives or stimulants.”  Of those people who take these drugs, nearly 19 million of them abuse them.

Why America?

While prescription drug abuse is a global problem, the United States seems to be struggling the most.

Multiple studies show the most commonly prescribed (and abused) drugs are opioids, antidepressants, and antibiotics. Americans consume the vast majority of the world’s opioids; approximately 80 percent of the global opioid supply is consumed in the United States (CNBC).

Furthermore, Americans account for 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone (Vicodin) consumption, 80 percent of the world’s oxycodone consumption, and 65 percent of the world’s hydromorphone (Dilaudid) consumption (

Many trace the origins of America’s dependence on painkillers back to the 1990s, when doctors and scientists were commissioned to find new ways to treat chronic pain. In 1997, the Federation of State Medical Boards encouraged the introduction of policies to promote compassionate pain management.

Just years later, in 2001, Congress passed the Pain Relief Promotion Act, promoting pain management research, education, and training. And from there, a cycle began: from 1997-2007, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone purchases increased exponentially.

Who is to Blame?

While these painkillers were originally developed to ease pain and suffering, it’s clear that they may now be doing more harm than good.

Part of it is cultural. Kim Johnson, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said it best in a 2016 interview:  “Any of us go to the doctor and feel like we don’t get our money’s worth if we don’t come out with a prescription, right?”

In most countries, the use of opioid prescriptions is limited to acute hospitalization and trauma, such as burns, surgery, childbirth and end-of-life care. But in the United States, the policies are much more lenient; prescriptions are doled out like candy.

In fact, a recent survey by the National Safety Council revealed that “about 99 percent of physicians exceed the recommended three-day dosage limit, with a quarter of them writing prescriptions for a full month and thus overprescribing these types of medications” (CNBC).

One of the biggest abusers of prescription drugs in America? The elderly. As recent as 2013, doctors wrote 55 million opioid prescriptions for people 65 and older, a 20 percent increase from the last five years (

Part of this is due to medical advancements — as modern medicine improves and average lifespan extends, people live longer, but not necessarily without pain. Many of the 1.3 million elderly people living in nursing homes in the U.S. take painkillers regularly to manage chronic pain.

The situation with prescription painkillers in America today is drawing attention, and inciting politicians, advocacy groups (including The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and government organizations to try to reform prescribing practices.

For more information on how to seek treatment for addiction for you or a loved one, contact HARP Treatment Center today.

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