Prescription drug use at root of many Utah addictions and deaths

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 2:01 PM

Jamie Lampros, Standard-Examiner Correspondent

Utah is eighth in the nation when it comes to overdose deaths due to prescription pain killers, killing 16.9 per 100,000 in 2010 alone.

A new report by Trust for America’s Health entitled “Prescription Drug Abuse: Strategies to Stop the Epidemic,” found overdose and addiction rates have doubled since 1999, now outnumbering heroin and cocaine deaths combined. Approximately 50 Americans die every day from a prescription pain killer overdose, making it the number one cause of death due to injury in most states. Six million suffer from prescription drug abuse, costing the country an estimated $53.4 billion each year in lost productivity, medical costs and criminal justice costs. Currently, only one in 10 Americans with a substance abuse problem receives help.

During a conference call this week, Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health, said while the discovery of new pain medication such as oxycodone and hydromorphone has benefitted many people, misuse is at epidemic proportions, quadrupling in the last decade. He said enough prescription pain killers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every single American adult continually for a month.

“Working on this report, we were overwhelmed by the number of sad stories of tragedies that could have been averted,” Levi said. “Increases in substance abuse treatment admissions, emergency department visits and most disturbingly, overdose deaths attributable to prescription drug abuse place enormous burdens upon communities across the country.”

The report finds few states are implementing more than just a few promising strategies identified to help combat abuse. Out of the ten proven strategies, which include doctor shopping laws, required education and ID requirement, Utah has implemented six. Most states, Levi said, had six or fewer indicators in place. He also said Medicaid expansion for low income people would lead to expanded coverage of treatment.

Weber Human Services executive director, Kevin Eastman said he is not surprised by Utah’s ranking.

“We have noticed for years an increase in those we treat having either crimes or addictions related to using prescribed medications,” he said. “These are prescribed to the person in many cases but are also stolen from others to whom they are prescribed, because a person addicted is always looking for a way to get it.”

Eastman said while he doesn’t have the exact figures, approximately 33 percent of those in treatment at Weber Human Services started their addictions with inappropriate use of prescription medication. These drugs, he said, are often a gateway to other illicit drugs and are often used in combination with alcohol. In addition, people are not just swallowing the pills. They ingest them in other ways, such as chewing or snorting, which is extremely dangerous because the medication is getting into the blood stream too quickly.

Jed Burton, Weber Human Services clinical director said individuals in Utah get addicted to prescription drugs more frequently than street drugs because it’s more socially accepted to take a prescription.

“People will also share prescriptions because it comes from a physician for a variety of reasons and often that starts a person becoming addicted once they try it,” he said. “People are not afraid to try something because a friend suggests it will help with a symptoms and they view that as socially acceptable. Also, a person will take a medication as prescribed and will get addicted during the course and when the physician stops prescribing, the individual seeks other means to obtain those medications.”

“About 15 percent of our cases involve prescription drug abuse,” said Christian Friden, director of the Alcohol and Chemical Treatment Center at Ogden Regional Medical Center. “I think the person abusing prescription drugs has a harder time admitting that they are an addict and therefore we see less of them in treatment.

Friden said people can easily get hooked when they don’t follow medical advice.

“I personally recommend that you follow the prescription exactly as ordered. If you question the medication or the dosage prescribed then get a second opinion by a doctor that has a good reputation,” he said. “People in pain can easily become addicted to pain medication when they are not managed properly with prescription medication. Once a person becomes dependent on that medication to the point where they are now abusing it, they often will be in a state of denial. The community stigma for alcoholism and illicit drug abuse is so prevalent or misunderstood that people that get hooked on prescription drug abuse often times won’t seek addiction rehab.”

As with any illegal substance, the abuse of prescription drugs can over time alter mental function Friden said.

Wendi Davis Cox, program supervisor of addiction services at Weber Human Services, said individual and group therapies along with medication assisted treatment in some cases proves to be most effective, but preventive measures are always best.

“There are drop boxes all throughout Weber County where people can dispose of medications they are not taking,” she said. “People should monitor their medications and take steps to lock them up away from others, especially when the medications are lethal if misused.”

West Virginia was ranked number one in the nation for prescription drug abuse and overdoses. South Dakota had the lowest ranking.

The report, funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation can be viewed at

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