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Rx Drug Abuse At-a-Glance


Given the fact that medication abuse statistically rises with age, the earlier we educate children and young people about the realities and dangers of prescription drug abuse, perhaps the better our chances of preventing them from starting to abuse psychotherapeutics in the first place. 

  • The rate of current illicit drug use among people aged 12 or older was higher for males (11.6 percent) than for females (6.9 percent). Males were more likely than females to be current users of several different illicit drugs, including nonmedical users of psychotherapeutic drugs (2.8 versus. 2.4 percent).
  • Among 16 or 17 year olds, 4.0 percent used psychotherapeutic drugs nonmedically (with 3.1 percent using pain relievers nonmedically); prescription medications came in second to marijuana.
  • The rate of current nonmedical use of psychotherapeutic drugs among young adults aged 18 to 25 was 5.3 percent. The rate of current nonmedical use of pain relievers among young adults in 2012 was 3.8 percent.
  • The rate of current illicit drug use among adults aged 26 or older was 7.0 percent, including rates of 5.3 percent for current use of marijuana and 2.1 percent for current nonmedical use of psychotherapeutic drugs.

Source: 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)


While youth and young adult prescription drug misuse and abuse is experiencing a slight decline or no significant increase, it is important to keep the home fires burning under this issue to help ensure that usage rates don’t go up.

  • Approximately 6.8 million people or 2.6 percent of the population were nonmedical users of Rx medications, including 4.9 million users of pain relievers, 2.1 million users of tranquilizers, 1.2 million users of stimulants, and 270,000 users of sedatives.
  • In 2012, among those who abused illicit drugs, more than one in four people initiated with nonmedical use of psychotherapeutics.

First Specific Drug Associated with Initiation of Illicit Drug Use among Past Year Illicit Drug Initiates Aged 12 or Older: 2012


  • There continues to be a long-term drop in past-year nonmedical use of prescription medications.
    • Use of the pain reliever Vicodin has decreased among all grades. Among high school seniors, it dropped from 7.5 percent in 2012 to 5.3 percent in 2013.
    • OxyContin also showed a long-term drop in use among 12th graders to 3.6 percent in 2013.
    • Changing attitudes toward substance abuse often precede changes in reported use.
      • Although use of Vicodin has declined, so too has teens’ perception of harm.
      • In 2013, perceived risk of harm in trying Vicodin declined in 8th graders, from 29.4 percent to 26.2 percent and 10th graders, from 40.3 percent to 36 percent in 2013. This could indicate that use could begin to rise in future years.
  • The increased abuse of prescription stimulants is a cause for concern.
    • The percentage of 12th graders reporting past-year nonmedical use of amphetamines rose from 6.8 percent in 2008 to 8.7 percent in 2013.
    • Current use among 12thgraders also increased from 2.9 percent in 2008 to 4.1 percent in 2013.
  • The use of narcotic drugs other than heroin (most of which are prescription analgesics) has increased sharply in recent years as have emergency room (ER) admissions and overdose deaths involving their use, making this class of drugs of particular concern (use of this general class of drugs is reported only for 12th graders).

Source: Monitoring the Future Survey 2013


Many teens and young adults are obtaining their medicines from friends or relatives and specific doctors who perhaps are prone to prescribing these medications more often than not. Such realities identify the need for additional education about the hazards of sharing medications, protecting medications from theft and prescribing practices that decrease abuse potential.  

  • Teens are obtaining medications from family members and friends: More than one-half of the nonmedical users of pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants and sedatives aged 12 or older got the prescription drugs they most recently used “from a friend or relative for free.”
    • About 4 in 5 of these nonmedical users indicated that their friend or relative had obtained the drugs from one doctor.
    • People aged 12 or older in 2011-2012 who used pain relievers nonmedically in the past year follow a similar pattern as those who obtain other medications, more than half obtained their medications from friends or relatives for free, and nearly 19.7 percent obtained them from one doctor.

Where Pain Relievers Were Obtained for Most Recent Nonmedical Use among Past Year Users Aged 12 or Older: 2011-2012 


  • Overprescribing: Between 1991 and 2010, prescriptions for stimulants increased from 5 million to nearly 45 million and for opioid analgesics from about 75.5 million to 209.5 million.
    • According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC), nationally, sales of prescription painkillers per capita have quadrupled since 1999, and the number of fatal poisonings due to prescription painkillers has also quadrupled.
    • Prescription painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult continually for a month.
  • Varied motivations for abuse: To get high; counter anxiety, pain or sleep problems; or to enhance cognition.

To obtain more about Rx abuse-related data, visit

National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2012

NIDA, Topics in Brief: Prescription Drug Abuse

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Prescription Drug Abuse Strategies to Stop the Epidemic