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Opioid abusers have supplies close to home

Medicine@Yale, 2011 - July August

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The widespread illicit use of opioid painkillers begins more in bathroom medicine cabinets than back alleys, according to new Yale research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

School of Medicine investigators led by William C. Becker, M.D., an instructor in the Department of Internal Medicine, mined data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health to get a picture of the current landscape of nonmedical use of opioid analgesics, such as oxycodone (e.g., Percodan, OxyContin) and hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin). The data show that during the decade between 1997 and 2006, the strength of such opioids in prescriptions filled by pharmacies quadrupled, and sales doubled between 2002 and 2006. Moreover, between 2008 and 2009 the number of new recreational users of opioids increased 13 percent, to 1.2 million.

Recreational use of opioids carries risks of addiction, overdose, and even death, so the researchers were eager to uncover users’ paths to the pills. One-third of nonmedical opioid users said they obtained prescriptions from a doctor, but most users said they relied on a supply from family and friends, sources that deserve more vigilance from public health officials fighting opioid abuse, say the researchers.