Health Officials Scramble to Respond as Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic Sweeps through Tennessee

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America’s rapid explosion of prescription painkiller abuse has put health officials across the country on the defensive. Nowhere is this truer than in Tennessee, where a virtual epidemic of addiction is stressing the state’s health care system to the breaking point.

Tennessee currently has the nation’s second-highest rate of prescription drug abuse, trailing only West Virginia. According to the state’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services 221,000 adult Tennesseans misused prescription medications in 2013, and 69,000 of these men and women suffer from full-blown addictions and desperately need treatment and rehabilitation services. These numbers don’t even include adolescents who may be misusing prescription drugs, and there is no doubt that abuse rates of narcotic painkillers among Tennessee teens have been increasing. Prescription drug abuse by young adults (18 to 25) in Tennessee is 30 percent higher than the national average, and this would not be possible unless the problem was carrying over from earlier ages.

Not coincidentally, Tennessee is one of the three most prescription drug-happy states in the entire nation. Doctors in Tennessee hand out an astonishing 18 prescriptions each year for every man, woman and child living in the state. Most disturbingly, the number of medical orders for the opioid painkillers oxycodone and hydrocodone has gone up 500 percent and 300 percent respectively since 2000—and these medications are by far the most addictive among all the commonly used pharmaceutical drugs. More than 70 percent of Tennesseans who admit to using prescription drugs for non-medical purposes say they got the pills from a friend or relative, so it is clear that distribution of narcotic painkillers by medical practitioners has helped fuel the state’s prescription drug abuse epidemic.

A Prescription for Danger

The following statistics show some of the extensive consequences of Tennessee’s prescription drug abuse problem.

  • Deaths attributable to prescription drug overdose have risen by 220 percent since 1999.
  • Emergency room visits for prescription medication-related causes rose by 400 percent between 2005 and 2010 alone.
  • Drug-related crimes increased by 33 percent from 2005 to 2012.
  • Over the last 10 years, the number of newborn babies suffering from drug dependencies at birth (referred to as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome) has soared by 1,000 percent.
  • In 2008, it is estimated that lost productivity from prescription drug abuse cost the economy an estimated $143 million.
  • More than 50 percent of the children removed from their parents by the Department of Children’s Services were taken from moms and/or dads experiencing drug problems.
  • If the state were to provide treatment and rehabilitation for every prescription drug addict unable to pay for services, it would cost taxpayers approximately $28 million.

Another disturbing aspect of Tennessee’s prescription drug problem has been the effect it’s had on the state’s rate of heroin consumption. As an opioid, heroin is a cheap alternative for addicts who can’t afford oxycodone or hydrocodone and a similar spike in heroin use has shadowed Tennessee’s jump in painkiller addiction.

It Takes a Community

Public health officials in Tennessee were caught off guard by the sudden explosion of prescription drug abuse among the state’s citizens. But they have not remained idle in the face of this crisis and valiant efforts to suppress the addiction epidemic have now been launched.

Through its innovative Lifeline Project, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services has helped organize 39 separate coalitions of citizens, community leaders, health workers, addiction experts, recovering addicts and their family members to lead the fight against prescription drug abuse in Tennessee. The men, women and teens involved in this campaign traverse the state to raise awareness and spread the word about the true dimensions of this growing social menace.

To help get illegally-diverted medications off the street, a series of so-called “take back” initiatives have been launched that encourage people to turn in any unused prescription drugs they may possess. In addition, in about half of all Tennessee counties, permanent take-back drop boxes have been installed to allow people to dispose of their old meds at any time they choose.

Ultimately, however, the best solution to this problem will—and must—start in the home. If we were to trace the origin of abused prescription drugs in Tennessee, in most every instance a trail leads right back to the bathroom cabinets and medicine drawers of men and women who obtained these pills legally from physicians. The truth is that as long as pharmaceutical drugs are kept in places where friends, family members, children and other visitors to the home can find them, the threat of pilfering will continue to exist. No matter how remote the possibility of theft might seem, everyone with prescription medications in their home should assume the worst and keep their medications in secret, hidden locations—preferably under lock and key. And whenever a prescription runs out or the drug is no longer needed, any leftover drugs should be disposed of safely and immediately, leaving no opportunity for them to fall into the wrong hands.

Prescription drug abuse is out of control in Tennessee, and this is a problem that won’t go away without changes in attitude and common practice. When used outside of a medical context, drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone are a threat to human health and safety. No one should have any illusions about what can happen when doctors prescribe these medications indiscriminately or when patients fail to use them – and dispose of them – properly and responsibly.

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