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Federal Survey Finds 119 Million Americans Use Prescription Drugs


For the first time, the federal government's annual survey of drug use set out to find out what percentage of Americans use prescription drugs to begin with. NPR's Richard Harris reports it's a big number.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Many people who abuse prescription drugs started out with a legitimate prescription. So the National Survey on Drug Use for the first time decided to tally up the total use of these drugs. How many Americans take painkillers, tranquilizers, stimulants and sedatives? The answer for last year - 119 million Americans. That's about 45 percent of the population.

Most of the people in this national survey said they took the drugs as prescribed, but 19 million people misuse these drugs. They were usually acquired from a friend or relative, or people took more than their doctor had prescribed.

Kimberly Johnson, an official at SAMHSA, the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, says the abundance of these drugs makes them ripe for abuse.

KIMBERLY JOHNSON: And because of their effect, they have a high probability of being misused.

HARRIS: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is trying to reform prescribing practices, particularly for opiate drugs. The new survey also documents the dire need for affordable and accessible treatment options. SAMHSA official Kana Enomoto talked about that at a news conference today.


KANA ENOMOTO: One in 12 people age 12 or older needed treatment for substance use disorder, yet nearly 90 percent of those individuals did not get specialty treatment that could have helped them toward recovery.

HARRIS: That applies to all drug treatment, not just for prescription drug abuse.

MICHAEL BOTICELLI: So we need to expand access to treatment, and we need to do it now.

HARRIS: Michael Boticelli is director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

BOTICELLI: Because like every other disease, people who want treatment should be able to get it. And it should not be dependent on where they live or how much money they have.

HARRIS: President Obama's budget called for more than a billion dollars to expand access to drug treatment, but Congress has not acted on it. Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.