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Press Release

For Immediate Release: June 17, 2010

  • ONDCP Press Office, Doug Richardson
    202-395-3036 /
  • SAMHSA Press Office
    240-276-2130 /
  • CDC Injury Press Office
    770-488-4902 /

Study Shows 111 Percent Increase in Emergency Department Visits Involving Nonmedical Use of Prescription Opioid Pain Relievers in Five-Year Period

From 2004 to 2008 the estimated number of emergency department visits linked to the nonmedical use of prescription pain relievers rose from 144,644 visits to 305,885 visits a year.

Visits to hospital emergency departments involving nonmedical use of prescription narcotic pain relievers more than doubled, rising 111 percent, between 2004 and 2008, according to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study used data from SAMHSA's Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) emergency department system. It examined emergency department visits for nonmedical use of legal drugs, such as using them without a prescription.

The dramatic rise in emergency department visits associated with nonmedical use of these drugs occurred among men and women, as well as among those younger than age 21 and those 21 and older.

"The abuse of prescription drugs is our nation's fastest-growing drug problem. And this new study shows it is a problem that affects men and women, people under 21, and those over 21," said Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske. "The newly released National Drug Control Strategy contains specific steps that all of us can take to address this issue."

The three prescription opioid pain relievers most frequently involved in hospital emergency department visits from 2004 to 2008 were:

  • Oxycodone products – ED visits involving nonmedical use rose 152 percent, to 105,214.

  • Hydrocodone products – emergency department visits involving nonmedical use rose 123 percent, to 89,051.

  • Methadone products – emergency department visits involving nonmedical use rose 73 percent, to 63,629.

"These alarming findings provide one more example of how the misuse of prescription pain relievers is impacting lives and our health care system," said SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde. "This public health threat requires an all-out effort to raise awareness of the public about proper use, storage, and disposal of these powerful drugs."

The numbers of emergency department visits involving nonmedical use of other types of prescription pain relievers such as morphine, fentanyl and hydromorphone were lower, but they also showed sharp rises during this period – for example, hydromorphone-related nonmedical use visits rose 259 percent from 2004, to 12,142 in 2008. These upward trends reflect in part dramatic increases in the rate at which these drugs are prescribed in the United States.

"We urgently need to take action," said CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden. "Emergency department visits involving non-medical use of these prescription drugs are now as common as emergency department visits for use of illicit drugs. These prescriptions medicines help many people, but we need to be sure they are used properly and safely."

The study is being co-released in SAMHSA's survey report, Trends in Emergency Department Visits Involving Nonmedical Use of Narcotic Pain Relievers and CDC's MMWR "Emergency Department Visits Involving Nonmedical Use of Selected Prescription Drugs – United States, 2004-2008." The reports are based on data from SAMHSA's Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) for 2004 to 2008. DAWN is a public health information system that monitors drug-related ED visits throughout the United States.

The full reports are available at: CDC MMWR The SAMHSA report can also be obtained by calling the SAMHSA Health Information Network at 1-877-SAMHSA-7 (1-877-726-4727). For related publications and information, visit

CDC recently released an issue brief, "Unintentional Drug Poisoning in the United States," showing more than 26,000 deaths from unintentional drug poisoning in the United States in 2006 – more than 70 each day. The issue brief provides recommendations on how health care providers, private insurance providers, and state and federal agencies can work to prevent unintentional drug overdoses. For a copy of the issue brief, please visit


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