Video: Prescription drug abuse soars

By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/11/2005 7:47:33 PM ET 2005-07-11T23:47:33

Gayle Adame got a prescription drug for pain after surgery. It made her feel so good that she started manipulating doctors so she could get several powerful painkillers at once.

"I would take four or five Percocets and a couple of Vicodin and throw in three or four Ultram, all at the same time," she says.

She admits it severely impaired her ability to function. Adame eventually got into a rehab program. But hers is hardly an unusual story.

A new report from Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse finds more than 15 million Americans — fully 6 percent of the population — are abusing prescription drugs. And that includes more than 2 million teenagers.

Why has prescription drug abuse become such a big problem?

"I think, one, the drugs are widely available: the opioids, the stimulants, the depressants. They're available in every medicine cabinet in every home," says Dr. Joseph Califano, who chairs the addiction center. "And then secondly, there is this sense that it's not as dangerous as marijuana, not as dangerous as ecstasy or methamphetamine."

But the consequences can be severe — addiction, inability to function at home or work, and in the past decade an almost 80 percent increase in emergency room admissions related to prescription drug abuse.

Tranquilizers are as big a problem as painkillers, because doctors are often so quick to prescribe them.

"You don't know what to do and you got to do something, and so you write them a prescription for something to help them relax," says Dr. Edward Covington with The Cleveland Clinic. "I think it's destructive."

Another big problem: Stimulants like Ritalin prescribed for children with hyperactivity are used by other kids to get high.

The report finds more Americans now abuse prescription drugs than use any illegal substance except marijuana. It calls for a comprehensive program involving doctors, pharmacists and patients to start to tackle this enormous problem.

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