America’s alarming growth in prescription drug abuse appears to be linked to people’s access to the internet and the number of rogue online pharmacies present there, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Southern California wrote in the journal Health Affairs. The authors added that the US states where access to high-speed internet grew the fasted between 2000 and 2007 also had the largest increase in the number of people seeking treatment for prescription drug abuse.

Dana Goldman, PhD, said:

“We know we face a growing problem with prescription drug abuse in the United States. One need only look at statistics for college campuses, where prescription drugs are fast replacing illegal substances, to see the magnitude of the problem. Our findings suggest that Internet growth may partly explain the increase in prescription drug abuse, since it is well known that these drugs are easily available online.”

The authors note that the rise in prescription narcotic painkiller abuse has gone hand-in-hand with the ever-growing presence of online pharmacies. Many of these internet pharmacies sell drugs, such as Oxycontin and Percocet, without asking for a doctor’s prescription.

There are internet sites belonging to pharmacies from all over the world, selling tranquilizers, sedatives, stimulants and painkillers to American residents.

Goldman and team set out to determine whether there is an association between online availability and prescription drug abuse. Many have suspected there is a link, but no proper study was ever carried out before this one.

They gathered data from the Federal Communications Commission and first evaluated each state and its people’s access to high-speed Internet access from 2000 to 2007.

It is virtually impossible to accurately know how widespread prescription drug abuse is. The investigators collected data on admissions to substance abuse clinics from SAMHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration).

They found that in each state, a 10% rise in high-speed Internet availability went hand-in-hand with a 1% increase in prescription drug abuse admissions.

The increases included (in order):

  • Narcotic painkillers
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Stimulants
  • Sedatives

On the other hand, addiction to substances that are not available online either grew very little or dropped. Examples include cocaine, heroin and alcohol.

Jena said:

“The lack of an increase in abuse of drugs not available on the Internet suggests that an overall growth in drug-seeking behavior cannot explain the rise in prescription drug abuse. Further studies need to better evaluate how easily commonly abused prescription drugs can be purchased online and explore the importance to the problem of foreign Internet pharmacies, which are outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. government.”

The US Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act of 2009 mentions the delivery of controlled substances – it states that pharmacies are not allowed to sell controlled substances unless the patient has a prescription from a doctor who saw them face-to-face.

In November 2009, one hundred internet pharmacies received warning letters from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding the sale of unapproved drugs and controlled substances. Whether or not they had any effect we don’t know, Jena added.

“Growing Internet Use May Help Explain The Rise In Prescription Drug Abuse In The United States”
Anupam B. Jena1 and Dana P. Goldman
Health Affairs 10.1377/hlthaff.2011.0155

Written by Christian Nordqvist