The proportion of drug addicts checking into rehab that abuse prescription medications has seen a four-fold increase in the past decade, according to a study released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
In 1998, 2.2 percent of people seeking treatment reported abusing prescription pain relievers, but that number has climbed steadily over the years. In 2008, nearly 10 percent reported abusing common prescription drugs such as Vicodin, OxyContin or morphine, according to the study released Thursday.
Peter Delany, director of the Office of Applied Studies at SAMHSA, who conducted the study, says that this spike is a reflection of a steady increase in the prevalence of the issue.
"In a way it's a good news/bad news story," he says. "People are getting treatment, which is good news. But the bad news is the problem just keeps growing.
"People look at these medications and because it's a prescription, they don't think it's as dangerous," he adds.
But the dangers of prescription drug abuse become clearer with every year, Delany says.
A June report by SAMHSA highlighted this danger: Researchers found that emergency room visits associated with prescription drug overdose more than doubled from 2004 to 2008.
"This has been a trend coming for 10 years," says Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of A Partnership for a Drug-Free America. "It should be no surprise that now it is showing up in ER visits and people checking into treatment centers."
Despite its prevalence, prescription drug addiction is still a poorly understood issue in America, Pasierb says.
"We have to struggle with overturning the public misperceptions," he says. "I'm hoping this report can be like a cold, wet slap in the public's face to wake up to the fact that this is an actual, real public problem."
Deceptively Safe -- Prescription Drugs Just as Dangerous as Illicit
The study draws on the Treatment Episode Data set, a periodic report that collects national information on patients admitted to drug rehabilitation programs.
Researchers found that the increase in patients checking into rehab with prescription drug abuse issues was similarly striking across age, gender, level of education and employment status.
"It cuts across all age groups and socioeconomic levels," says Rob Covin, author of "Overcoming Prescription Drug Addiction."
One in five teens say they have used prescription drugs to get high, according to data from A Partnership for a Drug-Free America, he notes, and among those aged 45 to 54, there has been a surge in prescription drug overdoses -- now the second leading cause of accidental death for that age group.
What accounts for this mounting prescription drug problem?
Pasierb says it has a lot to do with how Americans view the medications.
"There's such a low perceptions of risk involved with these drugs," he says. "People think because they're FDA approved, that they aren't dangerous or addictive, and that increases the likelihood of use."
Many people also assume that addiction cannot happen to them, Colvin adds.
"We hear about it when a celebrity dies," he says, "but we don't hear about the families that deal with it every day."
The availability of these drugs adds to their appeal, as well. The number one source among prescription medicine addicts is their own family's medicine cabinet, Pasierb says. People are prescribed these medicines legitimately, but when they don't use them up, they hold onto them.
"Hundreds of millions of these pills are sitting in medicine cabinets in every state," Pasierb says. "It's no shock that abuse rates are so high.
"You don't have to go to the scary drug dealer," he adds, "you can steal it from grandma."
Changing Perceptions, Changing Habits
With the aid of SAMHSA's recent reports on this issue, the president has made a special effort to increase awareness and public education on prescription medication as part of the 2010 National Drug Control Strategy, Delany says.
But addiction experts warn that the problem is not going to get better any time soon.
"It's going to take a long concerted effort to slow down the progression of this problem before we can expect to turn it around," says Pasierb.
To fight against the rising tide of prescription drug addictions, experts say its going to take more than public awareness, it's going to take changes in the way that doctors prescribe the medications, the way kids are educated in school, and the way that law enforcement tracks and prosecutes prescription fraud.
Currently, prescription monitoring programs, which help prevent people from "doctor shopping" in order to amass stores of prescription drugs, are in place in 39 states.
"The problem is, these states don't talk to each other, so people just hop on a plane and go somewhere else for their prescriptions," Pasierb says.
Illegally selling prescription drugs also tends to receive less attention by the law enforcement, notes Covin, because illicit drugs get much of the focus.
Covin adds that family doctors often lack the skills needed to recognize and treat prescription drug addiction. Because prescription drug addicts don't carry some of the more visible warning signs that those abusing cocaine or heroine might, the condition often goes undiagnosed.
But above all, experts stress that the change needs to start with the person swallowing the pills. Public awareness of how addictive some of these pain medicine can be and the consequences of that addiction needs to be increased, experts say.
"People think this addiction is a moral issue so it won't happen to them, when in fact it is a disease -- a chronic, progressive disease that, if you don't get help, will become fatal," he says. "People just don't seem to understand that."
The first step can start in the home, Pasierb says: Don't have prescription narcotics on hand if you don't need them. And if you do need them for medical reasons, keep them out of reach of kids and teens.
"It's a complicated issue and it's going to take a lot of changes on the policy, medical and education front," he says. "But if people just cleaned out their medicine cabinet tonight of unnecessary prescription narcotics, it would make a difference immediately."