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Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics & Facts (2023)

Opioids are the most commonly abused prescription drugs and caused over 49,000 overdose deaths in the US in 2019.

August 31, 2023

Prescription drug abuse is a silent epidemic that has been ravaging communities across the United States. What was once thought of as a problem affecting only a small segment of society has now become a widespread issue, affecting millions of people and their loved ones. In this article, we will delve into the dark world of prescription drug abuse, exploring the shocking statistics and facts that reveal the true extent of this growing crisis.

Top Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics & Facts

  1. About 18 million people misused prescription drugs at least once in the past year.
  2. Over 2 million Americans have a prescription opioid use disorder.
  3. Prescription opioids are responsible for more overdose deaths than any other substance, including heroin and cocaine.
  4. In 2017, there were over 47,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in the US alone.
  5. Young adults aged 18 to 25 are the largest group of prescription drug abusers.
  6. Over half of people who misuse prescription drugs obtain them from a friend or family member for free.
  7. The economic cost of prescription drug abuse is estimated to be around $78.5 billion each year in the US alone.
  8. Overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines, commonly prescribed for anxiety and sleep disorders, has increased four-fold since 1999.
  9. People who abuse prescription opioids are 40 times more likely to develop a heroin addiction than those who do not abuse these drugs.
  10. Prescription drug abuse is not limited to any particular demographic or geographic region; it affects individuals from all walks of life.

Read about: 57+ Heroin Statistics (2023)

Global Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics

Country Statistics
Worldwide Opioid consumption has increased by 56% from 2011 to 2016.
Australia Opioid-related deaths have doubled in the past decade, with prescription opioids accounting for over 70% of these deaths.
Canada Over 11,000 opioid-related deaths between January 2016 and December 2018.
Germany Benzodiazepine use has increased by around 20% since 2007.
United Kingdom Over 3,700 drug poisoning deaths involving both legal and illegal drugs in 2019.
Japan Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed for anxiety and sleep disorders and are frequently abused.
India Tramadol abuse has become a major concern.
  • The United States is not the only country facing a prescription drug abuse epidemic. According to the International Narcotics Control Board, opioid consumption has increased by 56% worldwide from 2011 to 2016.
  • In Australia, opioid-related deaths have doubled in the past decade, with prescription opioids accounting for over 70% of these deaths.
  • Canada has also seen a rise in opioid-related deaths, with over 11,000 deaths between January 2016 and December 2018.
  • In Europe, prescription drug abuse is prevalent in countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom. In Germany, benzodiazepine use has increased by around 20% since 2007. In the UK, there were over 3,700 drug poisoning deaths involving both legal and illegal drugs in 2019.
  • Asia is also experiencing a rise in prescription drug abuse. In Japan, benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed for anxiety and sleep disorders and are frequently abused. In India, tramadol abuse has become a major concern.

Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics in U.S.

  • More than 80% of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  • The economic cost of prescription opioid misuse in the U.S. is estimated to be $78.5 billion per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • In 2017, more than 2 million Americans aged 12 or older misused prescription pain relievers for the first time, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
  • The states with the highest rates of opioid overdose deaths in 2018 were West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia, according to the CDC.
  • Among people aged 12 or older who misused prescription pain relievers in 2017, nearly 60% got them from a friend or relative for free, according to SAMHSA.
  • Women are more likely than men to be prescribed opioid pain medications and to become addicted to them, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

How Many People Misuse Prescription Drug in the United States?

  • Approximately 18 million people in the United States have misused prescription drugs at least once in the past year, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
  • The number of people who misuse prescription drugs has increased by almost 30% since 2002, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  • Prescription drug misuse is most prevalent among young adults aged 18 to 25, with about one in four reporting non-medical use of prescription drugs in the past year, according to SAMHSA.
  • Among those who misuse prescription drugs, more than half obtain them from a friend or relative for free. Only about a quarter obtain them from a healthcare provider, according to SAMHSA.

Prescription Drug Addiction by Age

Age Group Prescription Drugs Abused Statistics
Teenagers Opioids, Tranquilizers, Stimulants Approximately 2% of high school seniors in the US misuse prescription drugs.
Young Adults (18-25) Opioids, Benzodiazepines, ADHD Medications The largest group of prescription drug abusers.
Middle-Aged Adults (45-64) Opioids, Other Pain Relievers, Benzodiazepines The rate of opioid-related hospitalizations increased by over 50% between 2010 and 2016.
Older Adults (65+) Benzodiazepines, Opioids, Other Medications Benzodiazepine use among older adults has increased significantly in recent years.

Prescription drug addiction affects people of all ages, but certain age groups are more vulnerable than others. Here are some statistics on prescription drug addiction by age:

  • Teenagers: Approximately 2% of high school seniors in the US misuse prescription drugs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The most commonly abused prescription drugs among teenagers are opioids, followed by tranquilizers and stimulants.
  • Young adults: As mentioned earlier, young adults aged 18 to 25 are the largest group of prescription drug abusers. This age group is more likely than any other to misuse prescription opioids, benzodiazepines, and ADHD medications, according to a study published in JAMA Network Open.
  • Middle-aged adults: Prescription drug addiction among middle-aged adults is on the rise. Between 2010 and 2016, the rate of opioid-related hospitalizations increased by over 50% among people aged 45 to 64, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).
  • Older adults: Although older adults are less likely than younger adults to misuse prescription drugs, they are more likely to experience adverse effects from them due to age-related changes in metabolism and organ function. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), benzodiazepine use among older adults has increased significantly in recent years.

Read about: Teenage Drug Abuse Statistics (2023)

Prescription Drug Addiction by Gender

  • Women are more likely than men to be prescribed opioid pain medications and to become addicted to them, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • In 2017, nearly 1.7 million women in the United States aged 18 or older misused prescription drugs for the first time, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
  • The states with the highest rates of opioid overdose deaths among women in 2018 were West Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, and New Hampshire, according to the CDC.
  • Men are more likely than women to die from an opioid overdose, according to a study published in JAMA Network Open. The study found that men accounted for nearly 70% of all opioid-related overdose deaths in the US between 2000 and 2015.

Prescription Drug Addiction by Race/Ethnicity

Race/Ethnicity Prescription Drug Misuse Rates Negative Health Consequences Sources of Prescription Opioids Opioid Overdose Deaths Treatment Seeking Rates
African American Lower than Whites More likely to experience negative health consequences from prescription drug abuse - - -
Hispanic/Latino Lower than Whites More likely to experience negative health consequences from prescription drug abuse - - -
Non-Hispanic White Higher than African Americans and Hispanics - More likely to obtain prescription opioids through a healthcare provider - -
American Indian/Alaska Native - - - Highest rate of opioid overdose deaths among all racial/ethnic groups in the US. -
Asian American Lower than other racial/ethnic groups - - - Less likely than other groups to seek treatment for substance abuse problems.
  • African Americans and Hispanics have lower rates of prescription drug misuse compared to whites, according to a study published in the Journal of Pain.
  • However, African Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to experience negative health consequences from prescription drug abuse, such as overdose and hospitalization, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
  • Among people who misuse prescription opioids, non-Hispanic whites are more likely than other racial or ethnic groups to obtain them through a healthcare provider, according to SAMHSA.
  • American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths among all racial/ethnic groups in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Asian Americans have lower rates of prescription drug misuse compared to other racial/ethnic groups. However, they are less likely than other groups to seek treatment for substance abuse problems, according to SAMHSA.

Who is Affected by Prescription Drug Abuse

  • In 2018, an estimated 10.3 million people aged 12 or older misused opioids in the past year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  • Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids have increased by more than five times since 1999, with over 14,000 deaths involving prescription opioids in 2019, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  • In addition to opioids, benzodiazepines (such as Xanax and Valium) are another class of prescription drugs that are commonly misused. In 2019, an estimated 9.7 million people aged 12 or older misused benzodiazepines in the past year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  • Adolescents who misuse prescription opioids are more likely to use other substances as well, such as alcohol or marijuana, according to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics. The study found that among high school seniors who had misused prescription opioids in the past year, nearly half also reported using alcohol or marijuana.

Most Common Prescription Drugs Abused

Drug Class Examples
Opioids oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine
Benzodiazepines alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan)
Stimulants methylphenidate (Ritalin), amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall)
Sedatives/hypnotics zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta)
Antidepressants n/a
Over-the-counter medications cough syrups containing codeine or dextromethorphan

Prescription drug abuse is not limited to any particular type of medication. However, some drugs are more likely to be abused than others. Here are some of the most commonly abused prescription drugs:

  • Opioids: These drugs are used to treat pain but are highly addictive. Examples include oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and codeine.
  • Benzodiazepines: These drugs are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders but can be habit-forming. Examples include alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), and lorazepam (Ativan).
  • Stimulants: These drugs are used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy but can be misused for their stimulant effects. Examples include methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall).
  • Sedatives/hypnotics: These drugs are used to treat insomnia but can be habit-forming. Examples include zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta).
  • In 2019, the most commonly prescribed class of drugs in the US were antidepressants, followed by opioids and beta blockers, according to data from IQVIA.
  • According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, prescription drug abuse can also include over-the-counter medications, such as cough syrups that contain codeine or dextromethorphan.
  • A study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that among patients who were prescribed opioids for chronic pain, nearly one-third also received benzodiazepines and/or muscle relaxants. This combination of medications can increase the risk of overdose and other adverse events.
  • The misuse of prescription drugs can have serious economic consequences as well. A study published in Pain Medicine estimated that the annual cost of prescription opioid misuse in the US was $78.5 billion in 2013, including healthcare costs, lost productivity, and criminal justice costs.

Sources of Prescription Drug Abuse

  • Over 50% of people who misuse prescription drugs obtain them from a friend or relative, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
  • Only about a quarter of those who misuse prescription drugs obtain them from a healthcare provider, according to SAMHSA.
  • The internet is also a source of prescription drug abuse. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that approximately 1 in 30 online pharmacy sites were compliant with federal and state laws, raising concerns about the safety and legitimacy of online pharmacies as sources for prescription drugs.
  • Other sources of prescription drug abuse include theft from pharmacies or healthcare facilities, "doctor shopping" (visiting multiple doctors to obtain prescriptions), and illegal street markets, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Causes of Prescription Drug Abuse

Source: Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics
  • One of the major causes of prescription drug abuse is the over-prescription of medications by healthcare providers. According to a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, nearly 20% of patients who were prescribed opioids for chronic pain later became addicted to them.
  • Another cause is the easy availability of prescription drugs. Many people obtain these drugs from friends or family members who have been prescribed them, or they purchase them illegally online or on the street.
  • Prescription drug advertising is also a contributing factor. Direct-to-consumer advertising can create unrealistic expectations about the effectiveness and safety of certain medications, leading people to seek them out even when they are not medically necessary.
  • Mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression can also contribute to prescription drug abuse. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that people with anxiety disorders are more likely than others to misuse benzodiazepines.
  • Social and environmental factors, such as peer pressure and stress, can also play a role in prescription drug abuse.

The Consequences of Prescription Drug Abuse

  • Physical health problems: Prescription drug abuse can cause a variety of physical health problems, depending on the specific drug(s) involved. For example, opioids can lead to respiratory depression, constipation, and hormonal imbalances; benzodiazepines can cause drowsiness, dizziness, and memory problems; and stimulants can result in high blood pressure, heart palpitations, and insomnia.
  • Addiction: Prescription drug abuse can lead to addiction, which is characterized by compulsive drug-seeking behavior despite negative consequences. Addiction can be difficult to overcome without professional help and can have long-lasting effects on a person's mental and physical health.
  • Overdose: Prescription drug abuse can increase the risk of overdose, which can be fatal. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 47,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2017 alone.
  • Legal problems: Prescription drug abuse can lead to legal problems, such as arrest or incarceration for drug-related offenses.
  • Relationship problems: Prescription drug abuse can strain relationships with family members, friends, and romantic partners. It can also cause social isolation and feelings of shame or guilt.
  • Work/school problems: Prescription drug abuse can interfere with a person's ability to perform well at work or school. It can lead to absenteeism, poor job/school performance, and disciplinary action.

Rate of Opioid Prescriptions Visits in the Emergency Department

Source: cdc.gov
  • In 2017, the rate of ED visits with an opioid prescribed was 15.5 per 100 ED visits.
  • This represents a decline from 2012 when the rate was 20.1 per 100 ED visits.
  • However, the rate of ED visits with an opioid prescribed remains high among certain subpopulations, including patients aged 25-44 and those living in nonmetropolitan areas.
  • The use of opioids in the ED setting has been linked to increased risk of long-term use and addiction.

Read about: Hospital Statistics & Facts: 53+ Trends You Need to Know

Prescription Drug-Related Death Rates in the United States (2019)

  • In 2019, there were over 49,000 opioid overdose deaths in the United States, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  • Synthetic opioids (excluding methadone) such as fentanyl were involved in nearly 70% of all opioid overdose deaths in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Between 2015 and 2019, the rate of drug overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines increased by more than four times, with over 10,000 deaths involving benzodiazepines in 2019 alone, according to the CDC.
  • The number of prescription opioid-related overdose deaths has decreased slightly since its peak in 2017 but remains high. In 2019, there were still over 14,000 prescription opioid-involved overdose deaths in the United States, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Prescription Drug Abuse Treatment: Challenges and Solutions

  • In 2019, an estimated 2 million people aged 12 or older had a prescription pain reliever use disorder in the past year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  • Despite the high number of people struggling with prescription drug abuse, only about 18% of them received treatment for their addiction in 2019, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
  • Treatment options for prescription drug abuse include behavioral therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and contingency management, as well as medication-assisted treatment (MAT) with drugs such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone.
  • MAT has been shown to be effective in reducing opioid use and overdose deaths. A study published in JAMA found that patients receiving methadone or buprenorphine had significantly lower rates of opioid use and overdose compared to those receiving non-medication treatment.
  • However, access to MAT can be limited due to factors such as cost, lack of trained providers, and stigma surrounding medication-assisted treatment.
  • The Affordable Care Act requires most insurance plans to cover substance abuse treatment services. Additionally, SAMHSA offers a national helpline (1-800-662-HELP) for individuals seeking help with substance abuse issues.

Read about: Drug Rehab Success Rates and Statistics

What Can Be Done to Address Prescription Drug Abuse: A Call to Action

Prescription drug abuse is a serious problem that affects millions of people worldwide. It is a complex issue that requires a multi-faceted approach to address.

Steps to take

  • Prescription drug monitoring programs: These programs can help healthcare providers make informed decisions about prescribing medications and help prevent patients from obtaining multiple prescriptions from different doctors.
  • Improved prescribing practices: Healthcare providers can work with patients to develop pain management plans that prioritize non-opioid treatments, such as physical therapy and non-opioid pain medications. This can help reduce the over-prescription of opioid painkillers, which are commonly abused.
  • Education and awareness campaigns: These campaigns can help reduce the stigma surrounding addiction and encourage individuals to seek help. They can also promote safe storage and disposal of prescription medications to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.

We all have a role to play in addressing prescription drug abuse. By working together, we can make a difference and support those who are affected by this epidemic.

Summary

Prescription drug abuse is a global problem that can lead to addiction, overdose, legal and relationship problems, and work/school problems. Over-prescription and easy availability of prescription drugs are major causes. Prescription drug monitoring programs, improved prescribing practices, and education and awareness campaigns can help.

Antidepressants, opioids, and beta blockers are the most commonly prescribed drugs in the US. Prescription opioid misuse alone cost $78.5 billion in 2013. Over 50% of people who misuse prescription drugs obtain them from friends or relatives.

Prescription drug abuse can cause physical health problems, addiction, overdose, legal and relationship problems, and poor work/school performance. In 2019, an estimated 2 million people had a prescription pain reliever use disorder, but only about 18% received treatment.

To address prescription drug abuse, we need multi-faceted approaches including monitoring programs, improved prescribing practices, and education and awareness campaigns promoting safe storage and disposal of prescription medications.

Sources

  • National Survey on Drug Use and Health. (2017). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Opioid Overdose.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Emergency Department Visits for Drug-Related Suicide Attempts Involving Prescription and Illicit Drugs.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Prescription Opioids.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). DrugFacts: Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications.
  • "Overdose Death Rates." National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
  • "Drug Overdose Deaths." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/statedeaths.html

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