Pill Raids: Here’s How Big Prescription Drug Abuse Is in the U.S.

A record-setting raid of pill mills across the South on Wednesday shows that prescription-drug fraud and abuse remains a stubborn problem that has touched every corner of the U.S. — but there have been glimmers of encouraging news.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after a decade-long explosion of painkiller overdoses, the country saw its first drop in prescription deaths in 2012, and the numbers have leveled off since then. The dip mirrored a decrease in how often the pills were being prescribed.

Still, an average of 44 people die from opioids — which includes medications like Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet — every day, many of them in the prime of their lives. The highest death rates are among people ages 35 to 54, CDC data shows.

Some other facts about the epidemic:

  • There were 43,982 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2013, and just over half of them involved prescription drugs. Of those, nearly three-fourths were opioid painkillers.
  • Nearly 2 million Americans age 12 or older abused or were addicted to opioids in 2013, the CDC estimates.
  • Experts consider opioids a gateway to other drugs. Nearly one third of people who used an illegal drug for the first time began by misusing prescriptions, the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy reported.
  • Officials are particularly concerned about the link between painkillers and heroin. However, only 4 percent of people who misuse prescriptions move to heroin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  • Seven out of 10 people who misused prescriptions were given or sold them by a friend or relative. One in five got them from a doctor. Only 5 percent bought them from a drug dealer or stranger, according to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  • Painkillers are taking up more and more of law enforcement’s resources. In 2009, less than 10 percent of police agencies said they were the biggest drug threat. Four years later, 28 percent did, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
  • The DEA has estimated in the past that misuse of prescription drugs is a $25 billion industry, but that figure predates the current epidemic.