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Abuse of prescription drugs growing
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The recent death of popular music star Whitney Houston has increased the attention being paid to the issue of prescription drug abuse. This is not to assert that the cause of her death was indeed the result of drug abuse, but there is certainly wide speculation that alcohol, cocaine and prescription drug problems have been a factor in Ms. Houston's life for quite some time. We will not know for sure until the toxicology reports from her autopsy are released in the coming weeks (or months).

According to a report released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in November of 2011, the problem of prescription drug abuse has increased "four-fold," which, according to CDC Director Dr. Thomas Freidan, amounts to an "epidemic." Prescription drug abuse is the intentional use of prescription drugs (painkillers in particular) for non-medical purposes.

Aside from the fact than many people die daily from prescription drug overdoses, and that scores of others end up requiring emergency medical treatment for drug misuse or abuse, there are many other adverse consequences to our society as a whole. People who use narcotic-based painkillers or mood altering drugs routinely drive vehicles or operate heavy equipment and machinery. The dangers they pose to themselves and others is very significant, and because prescription drugs generally do not reveal themselves as readily as alcohol, their presence in a person's system is more difficult to detect. Many abusers, when confronted about their apparent stupor or being "off," simply assert that they suffer from lack of sleep or that they do not feel well. Drug abuse has a huge financial impact on the individual, their loved ones, and it leads to lower productivity, job loss and worse.

It is interesting that legitimately-manufactured prescriptions pain medications, stimulants, sedatives and psychotropic drugs are relatively easy to obtain, whether from legitimate physicians or through other means such as the Internet via foreign countries and even from within the United States. These same drugs are also readily available on the streets, or from people who have stockpiled them from their various physician visits. That these drugs kill and incapacitate is not subject to argument, and it is also known that prescription medication use does not carry the same stigma with it as using such substances as crack cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin. Statistics suggest that the aforementioned kill fewer people than their prescription counterparts.

Marijuana, although it is not harmless, has not been shown to kill or otherwise cause the same kind of physical damage as so-called "hard drugs" that are manufactured in clandestine environments and available from street-corner drug dealers. Despite this, there is much enforcement emphasis placed on marijuana throughout the country. It does seem that the prescription drug abuse problem needs additional attention and publicity, especially in terms of education and prevention.

Physicians have a significant role in helping to curtail the problem, although it is obvious that that they control only a portion of the prescription drugs that are used by members of the public. Nevertheless, we are seeing signs that the dispensation of prescription drugs by physicians is being done using a higher threshold and a greater reliance on other methods to help with pain control. Physicians are also doing more to educate their patients about the vagaries of prescription drug use and abuse. They are right to do so, and while these kinds of abuses are law violations, treating them as such appears to do little good. It is a health problem and the major emphasis for bringing the problem under control should fall on the medical community, parents and educators. The government also has its role in terms of prescription drug regulations and as appropriate, to enforce criminal violations on the manufacturing and distribution side of the drug abuse milieu.

If Whitney Houston's death is, in fact, even partially attributable to prescription drug abuse, then it is but a sad commentary on what is happening to not only so many other entertainers, but to the many "regular" people of our communities.