NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 10, 2006

Abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs is sending more people to emergency rooms than cocaine, according to new federal data that reflect the growing popularity of powerful painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin and hydrocodone.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which collected data from 417 hospitals and 106 million total emergency room visits:

  • Almost 2 million people visited a hospital emergency room for illnesses involving drugs.
  • Of those visits, nearly 1.3 million involved drug abuse or misuse.
  • About 496,000 drug-related emergency room visits involved pharmaceuticals: over-the-counter or prescription drugs.
  • About 383,000 visits involved cocaine and marijuana was involved in about 216,000 visits.

Surveys nationwide have shown a surge in prescription-drug abuse. The number of addicts seeking treatment for abusing prescription opiates, while relatively small at 63,243 in 2004, was up 62 percent from three years earlier, according to data released last month by SAMHSA. About 2.4 million people abused painkillers for the first time in 2004, making it the drug category with the highest number of new users, according to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health.

Most prescription drugs abused or sold on the street come from pharmacy robberies, pharmacist dealers or doctor dealers, says Mark Caverly, an investigator for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Source: Donna Leinwand, "Study: OTC drugs, prescriptions send more to ER than cocaine," USA Today, May 10, 2006.


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