Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics

This webpage includes the most noteworthy prescription drug use statistics and data available in the United States.

Highlights

52M
Over 50 million Americans have misused prescription drugs at least once.
18M
6% of Americans over the age of 12 abuse prescription drugs.
17K
More than 17,000 people die each year from a prescription opioid overdose.
5K
Every day, over 5,400 people misuse prescription medication for the fist time.

Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics

Prescription drugs are controlled substances; access to these drugs is strictly regulated by state and federal law, licensed professionals, and institutional standards and practices. Because their use is controlled by generally respected entities, they are often viewed as less dangerous than so-called street drugs such as cocaine or heroin. When abused, however, prescription drugs can inflict just as much damage as street drugs.

  • 52 million or 20% of people in the United States use prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons at least once in their lifetime.
  • 270 million or nearly 1-in-10 Americans over the age of 12 abuse prescription stimulants each year.
  • 3 million or 1% of Americans over 12 abuse prescription sedatives.
  • The prescription drug market that supplies the United States produces a high rate of synthetic counterfeits.
  • Synthetic copycats are twice as likely to cause death.
  • As many as 64% of prescription overdoses involve a synthetic narcotic such as fentanyl.
  • Prescription drugs have become a prime source of income among many local and neighborhood gangs.
  • 14% of people who report recent (within the previous 12 months) nonmedical prescription drug use suffer from a chemical dependence on that drug.
  • Prescription drug abuse increases the likelihood of illicit drug use by as much as 463%.

Prescription Drug Abuse Defined

Prescription drugs are made to be used according to instructions by the prescribing doctor as well as the company that manufactures the drug. Any use of a prescription drug beyond the scope of its prescribed use classified as drug abuse. “Self-medicating” is a term often used to describe someone misusing prescription drugs.

  • Prescription drugs used recreationally usually come in pill form and are referred to simply as “pills.”
  • Pain pills a.k.a. analgesics are drugs designed to relieve pain; they can also be used to get high (i.e. induce intoxication).
  • Most drugs are either categorized as “uppers” (stimulants) or “downers” (depressants).
  • Depressants are designed to relax muscle mechanics and slow down bodily systems.
  • Barbiturates and benzodiazepines are classified as depressants.
  • Stimulants are designed to increase energy, alertness, and blood pressure.
  • Amphetamines are classified as stimulants.
  • An overdose (OD) is a death induced by ingestion of any drug, prescription or not.
  • Prescription drugs obtained illegally are known in law enforcement as “controlled prescription drugs (CPDs)”.
  • The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) numerically categorizes controlled drugs as Schedule I-V with descending levels of potential for addiction or abuse.
  • Every category, from Schedule I (highest potential for abuse) to Schedule V (lowest potential for abuse), contains at least one prescription drug.

Prescription Drug Abuse Demographic Statistics

Research and data analysis of prescription drug abuse trends divide users into groups according to certain shared characteristics. Groups may be divided by social similarities, shared physical traits, geographical proximity, reasons for drug use, drug of choice, occupational status and job titles, etc.

  • U.S. national armed forces have experimented with stimulant use on soldiers to fight battle fatigue and build motivation.
  • 2,000 veterans who abuse prescription pain relievers also use heroin.
  • Army veterans are the most likely to misuse prescription drugs; the lowest rate of misuse is among Coast Guard veterans.
  • Mental illness appears to exacerbate prescription drug abuse.
  • People with a mental disorder are up to five times more likely to abuse prescription medication than those with no mental illness.
  • Women are less likely than men to abuse prescription drugs.
  • 29% of women who abuse prescription drugs use the prescription opioid buprenorphine.
  • Women who abuse pain relievers get 40% of their pills free from friends.
  • 3.5% of women’s pain pills are stolen from a friend, relative, or healthcare provider.

Age Groups and Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics

Prescription drug usage habits can vary sharply from one age group to the next. Preferences, including the frequency and intensity of usage, may be influenced by the aging process as well as the generation into which the user was born. Someone who came of age before or during the rise of the opioid epidemic in the 1990s, for example, is more likely to use opioid CPDs than a present-day teenager who grew up listening to public service announcements warning against their abuse.

  • Adults aged 18-to-25 are the most likely age group to abuse prescription medication.
  • 14.4% of people in this age group self-medicate or use prescription drugs recreationally.
  • 50% of adults aged 57 to 85 years take more than 5 daily prescribed medications or supplements.
  • Multiple prescriptions increase the likelihood of chemical dependence.
  • College students are (for the most part) of the age group in which prescription drug abuse is the most prevalent.
  • Stimulants are popular among college students wishing to increase their academic performance.
  • 8.1% of college students use prescription amphetamines compared to 5.9% of non-collegiate 19- to 22-year-olds.

Prescription Drug Abuse Among Children and Minors

Deliberate misuse of prescription drugs among children and minors qualifies as drug abuse. Misuse under adult supervision is a form of child abuse, whether the drug is ingested by force or as a result of neglect. Most child exposure to drugs is accidental. In the event of accidental ingestion, call Poison Control Centers (PCC) at 1-800-222-1222.

  • 4.9% of youth aged 12-to-17 abuse prescription medication.
  • 6% of high school seniors abuse prescription amphetamines.
  • 2% misuse prescription opioids.
  • Since 2005, abuse of prescription drugs among seniors has fallen by just under 50%.
  • On average, 30-35% of high school students who abuse prescription drugs obtain their drugs from friends either for free or through purchase.
  • 59.1% of high school seniors received prescription drugs from a friend.
  • 32.5% of seniors misused narcotics that were prescribed to them.
  • The primary source of CPDs varies based on drug classification.
  • 1-in-12 high school seniors use prescription pain relievers.
  • The usage rate of prescription drugs among high school seniors is second only to the rate of marijuana usage.
  • Youth who abuse prescription opioids, with or without medical approval, are more likely to graduate to heroin use.
  • 1-in-3 adolescent users of CPDs develop heroin addictions in adulthood.

Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics By Drug Class

Users tend to share certain habits with other users of their preferred drug. Certain drugs also vary by popularity, which affects the general public’s collective attitude toward those drugs. Drugs used among high-income earners, for example, are more likely to be viewed as acceptable (usually within limits).

  • 5.7 million people abuse prescription tranquilizers in a year.
  • 1 million of those people are misusing tranquilizers for the first time.
  • 1 million people misuse sedatives.
  • 271,000 of them are first-time sedative abusers.
  • Withdrawal symptoms from prolonged barbiturate use can be deadly.
  • Stimulants are often prescribed to combat symptoms of attention deficit disorder (ADD).
  • Cardiovascular complication is one of the greatest risks of stimulant abuse.

Facts About Abuse of Analgesics

Prescription drugs classified as analgesics may be the most widely used and misused of the drug classes. Because they are the most prescribed drug class, they are readily available both inside and outside the doctor’s office.

  • Over 11 million people abuse prescription analgesics.
  • 61% of prescription drug abusers use pain pills.
  • 51% of people who abuse analgesics got them from a friend or relative.
  • Each year, 2 million people misuse pain pills for the first time; that’s 5,480 first-time users each day.
  • 62.6% of users report self-medication to relieve physical pain as the most common reason for their misuse of analgesics.

Prescription Opioid Abuse Statistics

A significant number of people who abuse prescription opioids begin doing so as a result of receiving a legal prescription. Dangerous counterfeits and synthetic copycats are to blame for the rapid increase in opioid CPD overdoses. The most common type of substance exposure reported to Poison Control Centers is misused prescription opioids.

  • 97.1% of opioid abusers use opioid CPDs.
  • 28.3% of abusers use buprenorphine.
  • As many as half of all prescription opioids manufactured are purchased illegally.
  • 41% of chronic pain patients using prescription opioids develop chemical dependence.
  • 8.5% of addicted chronic pain patients suffer from severe chemical dependency.
  • Veterans using high doses of opioid CPDs are more than twice as likely to commit suicide compared to those receiving lower doses.
  • 32% of opioid overdoses involve prescription opioids.
  • Annually, more than 17,000 people are killed when they overdose on prescription opioids.
  • More overdoses happen in small cities and suburban areas than in large cities or rural areas.
  • Incidents of a child exposed to prescription opioids increased by 93% over 9 years.
  • 2012 was the peak year for prescription opioids, with over 255 million prescription orders.
  • The 2012 total was enough to supply 81.3% of everyone nationwide with an opioid prescription.
  • By comparison, 2018’s total could supply one round of prescription opioids to 51.3% of Americans.
  • 11% of U.S. counties produce enough opioid prescriptions for every county resident to have one; those are prescription rates of 100% or more.
  • More counties in the Southeastern United States have opioid prescription rates that exceed 112% than any other U.S. region.
  • Statewide opioid prescription rates exceed 100% in Alabama and Arkansas.
  • $26 billion in health care goes toward treating the effects of prescription opioid abuse.
  • Almost 284,000 cases of misused prescription opioids were called into PCC.
  • 44% of these cases are children under the age of 5.
  • Incidents of exposure to prescription opioids increased an average of 93% each year over a 9-year period.
  • Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is often used in place of or to supplement name-brand prescription opioids.
  • In 2018, Delaware reported post-mortem detection of fentanyl in 72% of overdoses.

DEA Fentanyl Data

In 2014, the DEA launched the National Drug Early Warning System (NDEWS). The system collects and analyzes nationwide data. It also makes use of 18 geographical points or “sentinel sites” designed to monitor shifting trends in drug markets.

  • 23 DEA metropolitan field offices reported an increase in controlled prescription drug availability.
  • 17 of those offices categorized the rate of increase as high.
  • from 18 geographical points or “sentinal sites” to monitor shifting trends in drug markets.
  • In most of these sites, fentanyl is the deadliest substance among drug users.
  • The word “fentanyl” appears more than five times per page in the most recent NDEWS annual report (2020).
NDEWS Sentinel Sites
Atlanta Metro New York City
Chicago Metro Philadelphia
Denver Metro San Francisco County, California
King County, Washington Southeastern Florida
Los Angeles County, California Texas
Maine Wayne County, Michigan

Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics by Geographical Location

Geography can be a key factor in development of personal drug habits and preferences. Some locations have a high concentration of a particular substance, creating a local surplus that drives costs down. Rather than pay a higher price for a preferred drug, low-income locals are more likely to use a less expensive, more available alternative; in some cases, this means risking high consequences.

  • Compared to every other U.S. state, Wisconsin has at least three times as many prescription drugs go missing along their supply chain (the DEA reports these as “lost in transit,” ironic quotations included).
  • Nearly half of nationwide incidents of prescriptions “lost in transit” occur in Wisconsin.
  • Vermont is the only state to have no prescription drugs go missing along the supply chain.
  • U.S. territories Guam and Puerto Rico are both experiencing a rise in CPD availability as popular points of diversion of prescription drug shipments among area cartels.
  • Multiple trafficking sites in South America are points of manufacture for synthetic-laced counterfeit prescriptions.
  • The use of prescription drugs in money laundering operations is also widespread in several areas throughout South America and the Caribbean.
  • Counterfeit drugs originating in Colombia and Venezuela are often trafficked through Central America and Mexico to the U.S. and Canada.

Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics by Race and Ethnicity

The use and abuse of prescription drugs varies across racial demographics. Economists, sociologists, and behavioral anthropologists collectively agree that these variations reflect socioeconomic obstacles and trends affecting each particular racial group. There is no indication that any racial predisposition to drug abuse exists; any such theories have long been debunked and rejected by the scientific community.

  • White and Caucasian Americans abuse prescription pain relievers at a higher rate than any other racial subgroup.
  • American Indian and Native Alaskan people are the second-most likely to abuse prescriptions.
  • The Bureau of Indian Affairs considers prescription drug abuse a critical social and healthcare issue among the 1.9 million people belonging to 567 federally-recognized native tribes.
  • Intertribal gangs such as the Indian Brotherhood have taken advantage of the prescription drug market as a source of income.
  • Black and African American drug users are less likely than drug users of other races to use CPDs.
  • Black Americans use oxycodone more than any other prescription opioid.
  • Beyond the age of 26 years, Black Americans are more likely to use heroin over prescription opioids.

Intended Use of Prescription Drugs

In addition to instructions from the prescribing physician, directions for ingesting a prescribed drug are always part of the prescription packaging. If not used as directed, medication can have an effect that can exacerbate the condition for which it was prescribed.

  • 97.3% of people who take prescription medication do so legally and as directed, to the best of their knowledge.
  • 73.9% of doctor visits involve some kind of prescription drug therapy.
  • The most commonly prescribed drugs are pain relievers, skin treatments, and weight-loss drugs.
  • 2.9 billion office visits result in a prescription order or the application of a prescription drug annually.
  • Pain relievers, followed by cholesterol-lowering and dermatological drugs, are the drug classes most commonly prescribed by doctors.
  • Hospital emergency departments use 368.5 million prescription drugs each year.
  • 81.1% of emergency room (ER) visits involve drug therapy.
  • ERs use prescription pain relievers more than any classification.
  • The second most common class of prescription drugs used in ERs is antiemetic or antivertigo, which relieves nausea and vomiting.
  • Prescription minerals and electrolytes to treat dehydration are the third-leading prescription class in ERs.
  • 85% of adults over the age of 60 use prescribed medication.
  • Doctors only prescribe medication to 18% of children under 12.

Sources

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Drug Topics: Trends and Statistics
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Therapeutic Drug Use
  3. NIDA, What is the Scope of Prescription Drug Misuse?
  4. CDC, Data Overview: The Drug Overdose Epidemic
  5. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) National Drug Threat Assessment, December 2019
  6. U.S National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus: Substance Use – Prescription Drugs
  7. DEA, Highlights from NDEWS Sentinal Community Site 2020 Reports
  8. Monitoring the Future, National Survey Results on Drug Use 1975-2019
  9. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), National Survey on Drug Use and Health
  10. NIDA, Substance Use and Military Life DrugFacts
  11. NIDA, Research Report Series: Prescription Drug Abuse
  12. DEA, Drug Scheduling
  13. Poison Control, National Capital Poison Center