Increased Internet Access Associated with Rise in Prescription Drug Abuse

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A new study has found an association between increased Internet use and a recent surge in prescription drug abuse. Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the University of Southern California (USC) found that states with the greatest increase in high-speed Internet access from 2000 to 2007 also had the greatest increase in admissions for prescription drug abuse at treatment centers.

The researchers believe that increased access to illicit online pharmacies, which ship prescription medications without requiring a doctor’s prescription, may be an important factor in this surge.

Senior author Dana Goldman, PhD., director of the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at USC, said that their findings suggest that Internet growth may partly explain the increase in prescription drug abuse, because these drugs can be easily accessed online. Dr. Goldman added that prescription drugs are quickly replacing illicit drugs on college campuses.

Goldman and lead author Anupam B. Jena, MD, PhD, of the MGH Department of Medicine, note that they wanted to look at the potential association between Internet access and prescription drug abuse. They used data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to gather statistics on high-speed Internet access in each state from 2000 to 2007. They also gathered information on admissions to addiction treatment centers from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The researchers noted that not all prescription drug abusers could be accounted for, as they could only gather data on those who sought treatment.

The study found that each 10 percent increase in the availability of high-speed Internet in a state was accompanied by a 1 percent increase in admissions for prescription drug abuse. The increases were most significant in narcotic painkillers (such as OxyContin and Vicodin), followed by anti-anxiety drugs such as Ativan, stimulants such as Ritalin, and sedatives such as Ambien.

During the same time period, admissions for the treatment of alcohol abuse and heroin and cocaine addiction (substances which generally can not be bought online) showed minimal growth or decreased.

Dr. Jena said that the lack of increase in abuse of drugs not available on the Internet suggests that a general increase in drug-seeking behavior alone can’t explain the rise in prescription drug abuse. Dr. Jena added that more research needs to be done to better understand how easily prescription drugs can be purchased online, especially through foreign Internet pharmacies, which are outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. government.

Being able to curb Internet sales of prescription drug abuse could save a great deal of money in health care costs, as well as many lives.

Source: eScience News, Increase in Internet Access Parallels Growth in Prescription Drug Abuse, May 12, 2011

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