Fighting America’s biggest drug problem: What you can do


Ken Hale

Clinical Professor Co-Director, The GenerationRx Initiative College of Pharmacy

As health care professionals – many of us are keenly aware of the simple truth – that America’s biggest drug problem isn’t on the streets… it’s in our medicine cabinets.  But let’s consider the following sobering statistics – to underscore the point.

  • According to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA), between 6 and 7 million Americans abuse prescription medications each month
  • The abuse of prescription drugs exceeds that of cocaine, hallucinogens, inhalants and heroine combined.1
  • Even more alarming, unintentional drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death, exceeding those caused by motor vehicle accidents.2
  • And thousands of emergency department visits every year are related to prescription medication misuse or abuse.

Fighting prescription drug abuse in your community through education

As health care professionals, I believe we have a huge opportunity, and responsibility, to educate patients and community members about the dangers of abusing and misusing prescription drugs. That’s why The Ohio State University College of Pharmacy has partnered over the past several years with The Cardinal Health Foundation to develop a series of educational toolkits (available for free download at toolkits include PowerPoint presentations, brochures, flyers, visual aids and other materials – which make it easy to educate parents, teachers, healthcare professionals, teens, children, the elderly and the general public about prescription drug abuse. They are designed to be easy to access and easy for anyone to use – whether they have a health care background or not. I encourage you to explore these educational materials and then consider these strategies for doing your part to prevent prescription drug abuse.

  • Start the conversation early. Help educate very young children about medication safety. According to a recent study conducted by Safe Kids Worldwide, more than 67,000 children were treated in emergency departments for medicine poisoning in 2011. The increased accessibility of prescription and over-the-counter medicines, coupled with children's natural curiosity, makes it important to educate today's youth in medication safety at an early age. Use the GenerationRx Medication Safety toolkit to discuss the issue of medication safety with elementary-aged children in an engaging, age-appropriate way. Opening up this dialogue with young children helps create a foundation of medication safety knowledge that can built on over time.

Remember that intervention in the teen years is key. The Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that approximately 2,500 young people between 12 and 17 years of age abuse a prescription painkiller every day for the first time3. One in three teens report knowing someone who abuses prescription drugs. And four of the top five drugs abused by 12th graders are prescription or non-prescription medications. What’s perhaps more alarming, is that according to the 2012 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study, sponsored by MetLife Foundation and the Partnership at , 27 percent of teens mistakenly believe that misusing or abusing prescription medications is safer than using street drugs, and 33% said it is all right to use drugs that were not prescribed for them to treat personal injury, illness or pain. Unfortunately, many teens incorrectly believe that the abuse of prescription medication is a safe and non-addicting alternative to “street” drugs. These statistics point to the dire need to educate teens about the misconceptions, realities and dangers of prescription drug abuse. Use the GenerationRx Youth toolkit to access a variety of educational materials that are targeted to the unique learning needs of this age demographic.

  • Understand that the problem extends beyond opioids and painkillers, to ‘study drugs,’ too. Yes, opioid abuse is clearly an issue among college students and young adults – one that needs continued focus. But it’s important to understand that opioids aren’t the only prescription medications abused on college campuses. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that full-time college students aged 18 to 22 were twice as likely as their counterparts who were not full-time college students to have used Adderall® non-medically in the past year.[i] And The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy reports at least one study showing that 34 percent of students at a large university used a prescription stimulant drug as a ‘study drug’ when they felt academic stress, believing that these drugs increased reading comprehension, cognition, and memory.[ii]

To help combat this epidemic, use the Generation Rx Collegiate toolkit. It was create by college students for college students and includes discussion-based and performance-based resources intended to help educate students at college campuses about prescription drug abuse, including both opioids and ‘study drugs.’  

  • Adults need education too. Many erroneously believe that teens and young adults are the primary demographic affected by prescription drug abuse. But the truth is that prescription drug abuse affects people in the communities where we live and work, across socioeconomic, racial and age spectrums. And, the truth is that adults are parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents too – they need to be educated about the dangers of prescription drug abuse not only for their own safety, but so they can model healthy behaviors; take the necessary precautions to protect their medications at home; and educate their children about the dangers as well. The GenerationRx Adult toolkit can be used to educate adults in a variety of settings – ranging from PTA and civic community meetings to special educational sessions hosted inside a pharmacy or at a health fair.
  • Partner with Law Enforcement to Host or Support Drug Take Back Days: Twice a year the DEA hosts a national take-back day, on a Saturday at the end of April and again the end of September. These events provide communities with a safe, legal way to dispose of prescription medications – so they don’t end up in the wrong hands. If you own or work at a retail pharmacy, make it a drop-off site by signing up on the DEA’s website for the next event. If you don’t want to wait for one of the official DEA take back days, you can organize your own. There are specific guidelines you must follow to have one, refer to the medication disposal day guidelines posted on at

1 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, SAMHSA
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
3 Office of National Drug Control Policy