A new survey is the second report in recent months indicating that what some have called an epidemic of prescription drug abuse is showing signs of tapering.
The latest survey shows a 14 percent decline in nonmedical use of prescription drugs by teens and young adults from 2010 to 2011. Last month, a group that examines workers' compensation claims in California found that prescriptions for opioid painkillers – which at times have led to dependence and abuse – fell off in late 2011 after steadily rising since 2002.
The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration conducted the latest survey, which was released last week. Peter Delany, director of the administration's Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, said the reduction in use by young adults appears to reflect rising awareness of prescription drug abuse by parents and health care providers.
“I think it’s a welcome piece of news,” Delany said. "What it is, it’s a signal that there’s an improvement, and we need to keep moving that down more.”
The 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that 18-to-25-year-olds reporting they had used nonmedical prescription drugs within the previous month declined from about 2 million in 2010 to 1.7 million in 2011.
Delany said the findings may also indicate the success of prescription drug monitoring programs used by doctors. The programs track certain prescriptions so physicians can look up patients to see if they are "doctor shopping," or feeding an addiction by getting multiple prescriptions for the same drug. Such monitoring programs have also been used by authorities investigating doctors who are heavy prescribers.
Tempering the decline in prescription drug experimentation, though, is a lack of evidence that overdose deaths from addictive opioid painkillers is declining, said Rosalie Pacula, co-director of the RAND drug policy center.
Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared prescription drug overdoses a national “epidemic,” compiling data showing soaring rates of emergency room encounters and deaths.
Data by IMS Health, a firm that tracks prescription data, shows steady increases from 2007 through 2011 in prescriptions dispensed for acetaminophen with hydrocodone, ingredients in Norco and Vicodin. The acetaminophen and hydrocodone combination was the most-prescribed medication in the U.S. with 136 million prescriptions last year.
That firm's data also shows steady increases in prescriptions for oxycodone – an ingredient in OxyContin –with 32.8 million written in 2011.
“I don’t think we’re clear of the harms of prescription drug problems by any means,” Pacula said. “It will be interesting to see if this decline (in nonmedical use) persists.”
A decline in opioid painkiller use also showed up in data reviewed by the California Workers’ Compensation Institute.
The group found that in the fourth quarter of 2011, drugs such as OxyContin, morphine and methadone constitute 4.9 percent of workers’ compensation prescriptions, down from 6.7 percent in the first two quarters of the year.
The 4.9 percent level is still far higher than the 1.1 percent reported in 2002. But it is cause for cautious optimism, said Alex Swedlow, executive vice president of research.
"We’re not quite sure and won’t be sure until we have more of a trend line if what we’re looking at is a true decrease in utilization due to a variety of factors or if we’re looking at a data anomaly due to billing cycles," he said.
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This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.californiawatch.org.