Editorial: Prescription drugs, not alcohol, biggest challenge for state

Sep. 02, 2014 @ 12:01 PM

A week ago we wrote in this space of the difficulties facing state law enforcement, medical professionals, hospitals and legislators caused by the rampant abuse of prescription drugs in our state.

Just a day after last Wednesday's editorial, the state released data that, beginning in 2012, prescription drug abuse drove more Tennesseans to seek help than alcohol abuse.

“As of July 1, 2012, the number of admissions in our state for prescription drug abuse exceeded admissions for alcohol abuse for the first time in history,” said E. Douglas Varney, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Abuse of prescription opioids, pain medications, is the number one drug problem for Tennesseans receiving publicly funded assistance for treatment services, the department said, adding that over the past decade, such drug abuse has increased an incredible 500 percent.

A national survey in 2010 noted that roughly one in 20 Tennesseans used pain relievers recreationally in the previous year. For 18 to 25-year-olds, that number is nearly three times greater: 12 percent, or one of every eight.

It's a tragedy, and one often not noticeable until real problems begin to arise.

“Many people needing substance abuse treatment are not getting the help they need,” said Commissioner Varney. “And of the number of Tennesseans who could benefit from treatment, only about one person in eight actually received it.”

We often consider the implications of alcohol abuse first, because the signs may be more visible.

You see commercials and advertisements for alcohol, you walk past it daily in grocery and convenience stores and you see people listed in the paper daily for DUI or public intoxication. Pastors routinely talk about the dangers of alcohol abuse. It's more rare to hear sermons on prescription drug abuse.

Don't get us wrong: Alcohol abuse is a serious problem. 

But many people consume alcohol responsibly; over a five-year span, 2006-2010, 1,647 people died in the United States from alcohol poisoning. Compare that with 33,071 unintentional drug overdose deaths in 2011 alone. 

Tennessee reported 1,166 drug-overdose deaths in one year, 2013, compared to just 37 alcohol-poisonings over the five-year span of 2006-2010.

Even if you combine all alcohol-related deaths — chronic causes, alcohol poisoning and traffic fatalities — Tennesseans are twice as likely to die from a drug overdose.

It's shocking.

State officials are trying to combat the problem, new legislation is passed each year, but the situation only seems to get worse.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, there is help available.

For more information, visit recovery.org or the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services at tn.gov/mental; or speak to a medical professional for more information.