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September 2019
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Americans take too many drugs

Ceremonies and events held in Pickens County in observance of Red Ribbon Week were poignant reminders of how drug abuse and addiction can destroy lives. 

You could hear a pin drop as the mother of a boy who overdosed on prescription painkillers recounted her experience to PHS students –a tragic story being told across the country as painkiller abuse has reached epidemic levels. 

Now reports are emerging about a rise in heroin use as a cheaper alternative to opioid painkillers (synthetic heroin), while the failed four-decade-long “War on Drugs” hasn’t put a dent in illicit drug use. According to a New York Times report from 2012 hard drug use has remained stable over the last 20 years, with “consumption habits moving from one drug to another according to fashion and ease of purchase.”  

The Red Ribbon Campaign focuses on communication between parents and children about drug abuse and encourages citizens to make a pledge to be part of the “creation of a drug-free America” - but with studies showing that retail sales of legal prescription medications has doubled since 2000 we’d like to point out that America is even further away from being “drug-free” than you may have thought. America suffers from an epidemic of overmedication that we’d argue is also seriously harmful to the nation’s health and economy. 

According to a study released by IMS Health in April, total dollars spent on medications in the U.S. reached $329.2 billion in 2013 (that’s just shy of Denmark’s entire GDP for the same year). This staggering figure was up 3.2 percent from 2012 and nearly double from the $172 billion spent in 2001. 

A study released by the Mayo Clinic in June 2013 found that seven out of 10 Americans are on a prescription drug and more than half receive at least two prescriptions. Twenty percent of U.S. patients are on five or more medications.

We blame in part pharmaceutical companies’ increased use of direct-to-consumer advertising (all those commercials that encourage us to “ask our doctor” if certain drugs are “right for us”), which has more than tripled since the 90s, with drug companies now spending far more on marketing and promotion of their drugs than they do research and development. A Pew report found that in 2012, “the pharmaceutical industry spent more than $27 billion on drug promotion— more than $24 billion on marketing to physicians and over $3 billion on advertising to consumers. This approach is designed to promote drug companies' products by influencing doctors' prescribing practices.”

Drug manufacturers - many of which have been put on the’s “Top 100 Corporate Criminals” list for fraud, cover-ups of fatal side effects, doctor kickbacks and other egregious acts - are raking in obscene profits while the health of the American public remains unenviable. In 2013 the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council found that, despite us being the most medicated country in the world, Americans live shorter lives and are in poorer health than other affluent countries. 

Then there are the health problems created from an overabundance of prescription medications - from prescription narcotics abuse, antibiotic-resistant germs and accidental deaths and illness from prescription side effects.

We’re not negating the value of advancements in medicine and we value prescription drugs for their ability to provide better quality of life for serious diseases like cancer, critical care and terminal patients. In an NPR interview Psychiatrist Dr. Sophia Vinogradov pointed out, for example, drugs for schizophrenia were once “draconian” but are now providing relief for that population.        

"Wrapping them in wet towels, locking them in a padded cell, frontal lobotomies if the behavior was really out of control," she says. "So when anti-psychotic medications did evolve and they did reduce psychotic symptoms, it was like the heavens had opened."

We get that. But for the treatment of more common health problems prescription drugs shouldn’t always be the go-to. This approach will require a change in mindset. Doctors and patients must become more knowledgeable  about health options and must place a stronger emphasis on prevention.