Government Relations Update

Scientists and public health advocates address prescription drug abuse

New research and prevention strategies highlighted in congressional briefing organized by APA and Friends of NIDA.

By Christine Jamieson

The nonmedical use and abuse of prescription drugs is a serious public health problem in the United States. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), prescription and over-the-counter drugs are the most commonly abused substances by Americans 14 and older, after marijuana and alcohol. More Americans die from overdoses of prescription opioids than from all other drugs combined, including heroin and cocaine. Teenagers, young adults and elderly persons are particularly vulnerable to abuse of prescription drugs, including pain relievers, stimulants, sedatives and tranquilizers.

Nora D. Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug AbuseOn July 10, the Friends of the National Institute on Drug Abuse coalition hosted a congressional briefing titled “Preventing Prescription Drug Abuse: Applying Science to Solve a Community Epidemic,” organized by the government relations office of the American Psychological Association’s Science Directorate. NIDA Director Nora Volkow (PDF, 2.75MB) provided an overview of the institute’s research portfolio on prescription drug abuse and prevention and of current knowledge in the field. Volkow presented recent statistics on misuse and abuse of prescription drugs, including how they are obtained for nonmedical use, and discussed neuroscientific research on why people abuse prescription drugs. She spoke about the similarities between illicit and prescription drugs, and addressed the differences between therapeutic use and abuse, presenting data on how the effects of a drug can differ depending on environment and expectations. Potential solutions suggested by Volkow, in addition to primary drug abuse prevention, included developing medications with lower abuse potential and increasing education for healthcare providers.


Lisa A. Marsch, Director, Center for Technology and Behavioral Health, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth

Lisa Marsch (PDF, 2.89MB), psychologist and Director of the Center for Technology and Behavioral Health at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, presented NIDA-funded research on technology-based tools for prevention of prescription drug abuse. Marsch discussed several examples of technology interventions grounded in prevention science that are currently in various stages of development and evaluation: HeadOn, an interactive computer program for grades 6-8; a web-based prescription opioid abuse prevention program targeted to high school-aged youth; and a web-based educational, skills training and goal setting/tracking program on safe medication use for persons with chronic pain who are prescribed opioids. Marsch explained how technology can enable rapid diffusion and widespread adoption of empirically supported interventions within community-based programs for prevention of prescription drug misuse. 


Amy Haskins, Public Health Educator & Sanitarian, Jackson County Health Department, West Virginia; Project Director, Jackson County Anti-Drug CoalitionAmy Haskins (PDF, 1.26MB), public health educator and sanitarian for the Jackson County Health Department in West Virginia, and project director for the Jackson County Anti-Drug Coalition, presented the story of a community’s response to prescription drug abuse. Jackson County, which has a population of about 29,000, saw 18 deaths of people aged 15-26 directly due to prescription drugs between 2006 and 2008, and the Jackson County Health Department subsequently identified this tragedy as a public health crisis. Haskins described the county’s efforts to form a coalition, to apply for a research grant from the federal government and to receive training from the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. The coalition learned how to devise and implement a strategy that was specific to the Jackson County community, including a media campaign encompassing such outlets as radio, football programs and church bulletins; presentations in schools and in the community; a state prescription drug monitoring database; increasing the proper disposal of prescription drugs; and expansion of random drug testing in schools. Haskins emphasized that local partnerships and coalitions, not only federal efforts, are necessary for change in communities.


Phil Bauer, National Advocate for Prescription Drug Safety, York, PA

The information in this briefing was presented in the context of a personal story from Phil Bauer, a national advocate for prescription drug safety. Bauer, from York, Pa., opened the event by sharing the story of the life and death of his son Mark whom he lost to a prescription drug overdose. Mark was an engaged high school student who played basketball, led an active social life and was close with his family. His overdose surprised even those who knew him well. Bauer’s talk captivated the audience and underscored the need for resources for research and prevention.


This briefing was the 19th in the Friends of NIDA coalition’s
Charles R. Schuster Educational Briefing Series on Capitol Hill, designed to educate policy makers about current initiatives and advancements in science funded by NIDA. Cosponsored by the Congressional Addiction, Treatment and Recovery Caucus, the Congressional Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse, and 23 member organizations of the Friends of NIDA, the briefing was attended by over 110 congressional staff, federal agency staff and members of the science advocacy community.


Presenters with briefing moderator Charles O’Keeffe, Virginia Commonwealth University. See also: 

Christine Jamieson is Science Policy Associate in the APA Science Directorate’s Government Relations Office.