As Rx problem worsens, NJ redoubles 'take back'

Prescription drug abuse and its attendant consequences are reaching epidemic proportions. In 17 states, deaths from drugs both prescription and illegal now exceed those from motor vehicle accidents, with opiate painkillers playing a leading role.  The number of people seeking treatment for painkiller addiction jumped 400 percent from 1998 to 2008, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.  In addition, between 2004 and 2008, the number of visits to hospital emergency departments involving the non-medical use of narcotic painkillers increased 111 percent. 

Last month, Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske and SAMSHA officials released the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The survey reported an estimated 21.8 million Americans (8.7%) aged 12 or older were current (past month) users of illicit drugs in 2009; an increase of 9 percent from 20.1 million in 2008 (8.0%).  The new data show increases in the non-medical use of prescription drugs. The number of people who abuse prescription drugs has increased 20 percent from 2002–2009, from 4.4 million people using prescription drugs for non-medical purposes, to 5.3 million in 2009. Additionally, more people initiate drug use by abusing prescription drugs more than any other drug. Of the 2.6 million new drug users in 2009, 2.2 million were non-medical users of prescription pain relievers. In New Jersey, the Office of the State Medical Examiner attributed 184 deaths in 2008 due to prescription pain medications.

The problem of prescription drug abuse is magnified when one looks at its impact on today’s youth. SAMSHA recently released data showing drug use in the United States increased significantly between 2008 and 2009 – with 1 in 10 youth ages 12-17 and 1 in 5 young adults ages 18 to 25 reporting drug use in the last month. Particularly troubling is a 17 percent increase in the rate of prescription drug abuse among young people aged 12-17, between 2008 and 2009.  Nationally, an estimated 6.2 million people age 12 and older reported having misused prescription drugs in the past month.  In 2008, 1.9 million youth (or 7.7 percent of youth) age 12 to 17 abused prescription drugs, with 1.6 million (6.5 percent) abusing a prescription pain medication. That makes painkillers one of the most commonly abused drugs by teens after tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana.  In fact, the latest data from the Monitoring the Future study show seven of the drugs most commonly used by teens are over-the-counter or prescription drugs.  According to the Partnership for a Drug Free America, every day, on average, 2,500 teens use prescription drugs to get high for the first time. 

“Prescription drug abuse is at record levels, attitudes about drug use are eroding, and drugged driving is disturbingly common,” said Kerlikowske, “Now more than ever, families must recognize early signs that children may be using drugs and take immediate action to protect them from the potential of a lifetime of drug-related consequences and harm.” In New Jersey 40% of middle school parents surveyed did not believe prescription drug abuse is an issue with their kids, illustrating a clear gap between parents’ perceptions and what data are showing. 

Where are kids getting these prescription drugs in the first place?  The answer may be startling to some - they are getting the medications from their own family and friends.  SAMSHA studies have shown that more than 70% of people who abuse prescription drugs get them from family and friends—often from the home medicine cabinet and often without anyone’s knowledge.   In one survey, 35 percent of high school seniors said that opioid drugs other than heroin (e.g., Vicodin or methadone) would be fairly or very easy to get.  Some of the most common reasons children begin taking a friend’s or relative’s prescription are to get high, to help with studying, or even to treat pain.

In 2009, Operation Medicine Cabinet was launched in order to combat this growing problem. More than 400 police departments and other law enforcement agencies throughout New Jersey helped collect 9,000 pounds of old, unwanted pills, pain killers, anti-depressants and other medications in an effort to keep teens from looting their parents’ medicine cabinets. That’s 4.5 tons of medications or approximately 3.5 million pills.  If sold on the street, the drugs would have a value of roughly $35 million. This program — the first of its kind in the nation — urged residents to scour their medicine chests for unused, unwanted prescription and over-the-counter drugs and drop them off for disposal. 

A national model was spawned from the success of New Jersey’s 2009 effort.  On Sept. 25, the first-ever national prescription drug “Take-Back” day was held.  The American public turned in more than 242,000 pounds of prescription drugs at more than 4,000 sites available in every state.  DEA New Jersey Division simultaneously spearheaded Operation Take-Back New Jersey on the same date.  The event, which thousands of New Jersey residents in communities in all 21 counties participated in, was part of a comprehensive public health initiative sponsored by the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) New Jersey Division and the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General to raise awareness of the dangers of prescription drug abuse and provide a safe and legal means to dispose of unused, unwanted, and expired medicine. 

“We are extremely honored that Operation Medicine Cabinet New Jersey has been recognized as a national model,” said Angelo M. Valente, executive director of PDFNJ, “this program raised awareness of the dangers of medicine abuse and challenged residents to see their medicine cabinets as a potential source for young people to access these drugs and clear out their medicine cabinets.”

“As a result of the great success this program had in New Jersey of bringing together prevention, law enforcement and corporate stakeholders, the American Medicine Chest Challenge has been launched as a national day of disposal to address the issue of prescription drug abuse. It will be held in communities across the country on November 13, 2010,” Valente said. According to the 2010 National Drug Control Strategy, prescription drugs are the second most abused category of drugs in the United States, after marijuana.  The take-back day offers Americans an easy way to dispose of their prescription drugs and help reduce the rate of prescription drug abuse.  Kerlikowski said that “expanding take-back efforts nationwide is a key strategy in preventing prescription drug diversion and abuse, while safeguarding the environment.”

Valente urges all New Jerseyans to take part in  the American Medicine Chest Challenge, which consists of five elements. 1) Take inventory of your prescription and over-the-counter medicine.  2) Lock your medicine chest.  3) Dispose of your unused, unwanted, and expired medicine in your home or at an American Medicine Chest Challenge Disposal site.  4) Take your medicine(s) exactly as prescribed.  5) Talk to your children about the dangers of prescription drug abuse... they are listening.  “This is an issue that every parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle needs to be made aware of and they need to take steps to protect our children from abusing prescription medications.”

For more information on the American Medicine Chest Challenge or to find a take-back site near you, go to



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