While the media has been focused on Australia’s meth addiction, prescription drug addiction continues to fly under the radar, taking almost as many lives.
The Australian Medical Association has recently declared prescription drug addiction a “national emergency,” as Australia is currently in the same situation as America in regards to unprecedented harms being caused by the abuse of prescription medications. Australia’s rate of prescription drug addiction was reported as second highest in the world last year, only after the United States, and afflicts 3-4% of the population.
The spotlight has been so focused on methamphetamine’s impact on Australia’s communities, that medical professionals are worried that prescription drug addiction is out of the public’s radar, while at the same time asserting the problem is even greater in magnitude than the ice epidemic.
The harm caused to society by the widespread abuse of prescription drugs is second only to the harms of alcohol abuse. The president of the Addiction Chapter of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Dr Frei, asserts that education and laws surrounding prescription drugs such as oxycodone have not kept pace with increased availability of these drugs. Without changes in legislation and public education, problems will only continue to grow and statistics of prescription drug misuse and addiction in Australia will continue to stagger.
Just because a drug is legal and prescribed by a doctor does not mean it is 100% safe, and it is this public misunderstanding of the addictive and deadly nature of some pharmaceuticals that needs to be addressed.
Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics
In Australia, two categories of prescription drugs are most commonly abused: Benzodiazepines and Analgesics. Benzodiazepines are minor tranquilisers and are most often prescribed by doctors to relieve anxiety or help people sleep. Benzodiazepines include drugs under the popular brand names Valium, Xanax, and Serepax.
Analgesics are medications used to relieve pain. Opioid analgesics such as codeine and oxycodone are the most commonly abused analgesics due to their ability to create sensations of euphoria. Those who are prescribed strong medications such as opioids or benzodiazepines can become dependent on these drugs without intentionally misusing them, as tolerance can develop and people will need to take more and more over time. However, prescription drug addiction occurs most frequently with the non-medical use of prescription drugs. Non-medical use is when people take prescriptions outside of their intended use, including taking a drug not prescribed to you, taking more than prescribed, or crushing, chewing, or otherwise misusing a prescription medication.
Approximately 4.5% of Australians 14 years or older have used tranquilizers or sleeping pills including benzodiazepines for non-medical purposes at some point in their life.
The non-medical use of analgesics is even more common, as almost 8% of Australians over the age of 14 have abused analgesics at some point in their life and 3.3% have done so in the past 12 months. Among young Australians aged 14-24 the average age they first try an analgesic for non-medical use is 15 years old.
Pain medications are the most commonly used drug, either licit or illicit, among 12-17 year olds. Four percent of 12-17 year olds take analgesics from home without permission and 3% buy them. This trend is especially frightening, as the younger people are when they experiment with addictive drugs, the more likely they are to develop drug addiction in the future.
Oxycodone Abuse and Addiction
The rise of addiction to prescription opiates has been particularly noteworthy and devastating. From 2002-2009 the amount of oxycodone prescribed in Australia increased 180%. In a similar trend to America, widespread prescription and use of opioids also leads to increased harm, including prescription drug addiction and overdose.
Of people who reported using opioid pain medication, 30% were using the drug for relaxation, 25% to get high, and more than 10% to relieve emotional distress. This means while people may first be prescribed opioids to deal with pain, a large percentage begin to misuse the drug which can lead to dependence. They may start by taking a higher dose than prescribed, and as people become addicted to the feelings of euphoria caused by misuse they may begin crushing and snorting, or even injecting the drug to intensify the high.
In needle exchange programmes, the number of people who report that their last drug injected was a pharmaceutical opioid increased from 7% in 2007 to 27% in 2010. At Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, monthly visits for injection of crushed and dissolved opioids now exceed that of heroin.
The population of those struggling from prescription drug addiction often differs from the stereotypical drug user and includes people from all social classes, those who are considered high functioning individuals, and those who have more social support. Once addiction takes hold, the consequences are similar to those of any addiction and can be deadly.
Prescription Drug Addiction Causes Overdose and Death
In the late 1990’s, hospitalisations due to opioid poisoning were predominately related to heroin, but by 2008 prescription opioids accounted for 80% of opioid-related hospitalisations. In Victoria, opioid analgesic ambulance calls in 2012-2013 increased significantly from the prior year. Metropolitan Melbourne saw a 55% increase and there was a 21% increase in regional Victoria.
However, opioids are not the most common drug resulting in an ambulance call. In Victoria, benzodiazepines are the 2nd most common drug involved in ambulance attendances, after alcohol.
In Victoria, prescription drugs were involved in 82% of overdose deaths in 2014. Benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Serepax, and Valium were most commonly involved in toxic deaths and opioids came in a close second. Commonly deaths were due to an overdosing on a combination of drugs, and benzodiazepines contributed to deaths involving alcohol, opioids, illicit drugs and antidepressants.
Treatment for Prescription Drug Addiction in Australia
Most people struggling with prescription drug addiction will need professional addiction treatment in order to overcome their addiction. Prescription drug addiction affects the brain in the same way as other addictions such as alcoholism or addiction to illegal drugs and may require detox in addition to intensive psychotherapeutic treatment.
The Cabin Sydney’s drug rehab in Australia provides holistic and effective outpatient prescription drug addiction treatment. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, the sooner you get help the better chance you will have at achieving long-term addiction recovery.