An alarming trend in the United States is the increasing number of people dying from overdoses of prescription drugs.
"There's a bigger problem with prescription drug use than there ever has been with meth, in terms of human fatalities," Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna said Wednesday. "The fact is, we've been seeing more people die from prescription drug use in Washington state than we have to automobile accidents."
McKenna moderated a panel discussion on the topic Wednesday afternoon at the Western Attorneys General 2009 summer meeting in Sun Valley. Following presentations by members of the panel, representing the pharmaceutical industry, Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the Washington Attorney General's Office, the session was opened to questions and comments from the audience.
"I'm worried about the parents that aren't parenting," said Montana Attorney General Stephen Bullock.
Stephen J. Pasierb, president and CEO of Partnership for a Drug-Free America, said prescription drug abuse is "pervasive across the nation" and that his organization focuses on educating parents to the dangers of medicine abuse.
"Kids who learn about the risk of drugs from their parents are up to 50 percent less likely to use drugs," Pasierb said.
Pasierb noted that illegal drug use in the U.S. has been dropping during the past three years but that prescription drug abuse has been increasing. He said the problem is compounded because American society has a lax attitude toward prescription drug use, and many assume that "abusing medicine is not dangerous." But such is not the case.
"There's a significant weakening in drug-free attitudes," Pasierb said. "Illegal drug use is going down, but it's being replaced by prescription drug abuse."
Particularly vulnerable are youth, said Pasierb, noting that "20 percent of youngsters are engaged in this behavior."
The most commonly abused prescription medicines, he said, are painkillers, stimulants, tranquilizers, sedatives and cough and cold remedies.
He said people abuse prescription medicines for partying, escapism, to relive anxiety, to either sleep or stay awake, or because of peer pressure.
"The scope of this problem is big," Pasierb said.
Robin Abrams, vice president and chief legal counsel for Purdue Pharma Corp., said the pharmaceutical industry is trying to address the problem. She said her company specifically is trying to develop safer drugs and has set up educational programs across the U.S. for law enforcement agencies, schools, community organizations, and parents and youth.
She said parents need to be aware of "where your medicine is" and "who has access to it."
South Dakota Attorney General Lawrence Long said his state has a successful program to assist illegal drug users, but noted that many of them have merely switched to prescription drugs.
"Folks that are addicted move to something else," Long said. "You push someplace and it ends up somewhere else."
The attorneys general ended the session by discussing establishment of nationwide task forces to further address the problem.
Terry Smith: email@example.com
Blaine County deaths
An overdose of prescription medication caused the death in May of an 18-year-old Bellevue man and is being investigated as the possible cause of death of a 38-year-old Hailey man earlier this week. Blaine County Coroner Russell Mikel reported that 11 deaths in the county from 2003 through 2008 were attributable to overdoses of prescription drugs.