Medicine SafetyPrescription Drug Misuse, Abuse & Disposal

According to the most recent national data, prescription medicines are the most commonly abused substance after marijuana. In 2014, more than 6.5 million Americans over age 12 reported abusing prescription drugs during the previous month and 4.3 million reported abusing prescription pain relievers. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of deaths from drug overdoses has increased 137% since 2000, including a 200% increase in the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids (including both opioid pain relievers and heroin).

Prescription medications are generally safe, but only when they are taken as prescribed and for the intended purpose. When they are abused—taken in ways that are not prescribed—they can cause an array of adverse health effects, including overdose and death. The risk of injury or death is even greater when prescription medications are abused alongside other drugs or alcohol.

Given the growing toll related to the abuse of prescription opioids and heroin, the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) remains deeply committed to working collectively to prevent the misuse, abuse and diversion of prescription medicines. We need a balanced approach that ensures appropriate treatment of pain while also addressing this critical public health challenge. 

PhRMA Policy Positions for a Healthier America: Reducing Prescription Drug Misuse and Abuse

We have put forth the following policy recommendations intended to meaningfully address this issue and inform policy proposals at the state and federal levels:

  • Improve the Use and Effectiveness of Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs): Consistent use of prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) is one of the most effective tools in preventing and detecting potential doctor shoppers while allowing for legitimate medical use of needed medicines. These state-run databases collect, analyze and share dispensing information on controlled substances, providing critical information to providers to inform their prescribing. PhRMA supports a broad range of policies aimed at facilitating and improving the use and effectiveness of PDMPs, as well as ensuring appropriate oversight of these critical programs.
  • Improve Education and Training Related to Prescription Drug Abuse, Pain Management and Treatment Options: As physicians and other prescribers are often on the frontlines of the fight against prescription drug abuse, they need ongoing training to ensure they meet the legitimate medical needs of patients while reducing the potential for abuse. Expanded educational efforts are also needed to ensure that the public, patients, caregivers and others understand the dangers of prescription drug abuse and their role in reducing the potential for abuse. Public policies should expand public awareness and education efforts, mandate continuing prescriber education and training and support the development of evidence-based clinical guidelines by health care providers.
  • Increase Coverage and Access to Range of Treatment Options: We support a comprehensive approach to treating those with opioid use disorders and addiction to other controlled substances, with the first step being the need to assure sufficient treatment capacity. Public policies should increase coverage and access to the full range of treatment and recovery services, expand access to overdose reversal agents (e.g., naloxone) and medicines to treat addiction (e.g., buprenorphine), as well as assess whether—and under what circumstances—civil immunity could or should be granted to a person for aiding in a potential overdose situation.
  • Encourage the Development and Use of Abuse Deterrent Formulations (ADF) of opioid medications, Non-Opioid Pain Medications and Medications to Treat Addiction and Prevent Overdose: ADF opioid medications make their intentional non-medical use more difficult, less attractive or less rewarding (e.g., make a medication resistant to grinding or crushing and inclusion of gelling agents in injectable medicines) and are an important treatment option that can help prevent widespread abuse that. Similarly, non-opioid pain medications are an important treatment option for patients, as are medications to treat addiction and overdose. Given the tremendous public health benefits of these treatment options, PhRMA supports a broad range of policies needed to foster the development and use of these medicines.
  • Strengthen Efforts to Combat Prescription Drug Diversion and Abuse: Prescription drug diversion not only results in increased costs to the health care system through doctor shopping and other forms of fraud, but it also results in devastating consequences for patients and their families and places considerable burdens on law enforcement and first responders. We support policies to expand law enforcement efforts to prosecute and shut down key sources of diversion, including rogue online pharmacies, and clarify regulations to better distinguish between legitimate pain management clinic practices and illegitimate practices or “pill mills,” which often operate on a cash-only basis and do not require prescriptions. 

For more information and a comprehensive overview of these policies, please see PhRMA’s Reducing Prescription Drug Misuse and Abuse policies document.


Selected Collaborations to Address Prescription Drug Abuse

In addition to broad range of efforts supported by our individual member companies to support appropriate use of prescription medicines and to prevent diversion and abuse, PhRMA engages with a broad range of third parties to increase education and awareness of this important issue.

PhRMA has several alliances with organizations working to prevent prescription drug abuse:

  • The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids Medicine Abuse Project, which provides comprehensive resources for parents and caregivers, law enforcement officials, health care providers, educators and others so that everyone can take a stand and help end medicine abuse.
  • The National Governor’s Association Prescription Drug Abuse Reduction Policy Academy, a year-long exercise in strategic planning aimed at reducing prescription drug abuse.
  • D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), working with law enforcement officials to develop a school curriculum to prevent abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
  • The Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), which supports local efforts to combat drug abuse in communications nationwide.
  • The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) to promote the need to increase interoperability among state prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs).

Prescription & Medical Sharps Disposal

It’s vital to dispose of medications properly in order to protect our environment and to keep medications away from drug abusers or curious children and pets. Medications should never be poured down the sink or flushed down the toilet, except for a few medications identified as appropriate for flushing by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For many, “in-home” disposal is the easiest option to safely dispose of unused or expired medication.

Home disposal recommends unwanted medicines (not sharps) be removed from containers, placed in a sealed plastic bag or container and discarded with normal household trash. To the extent that children or pets are present in the household, consumers may wish to mix coffee grounds, cat litter or other unpalatable home waste in with the unused medicines before sealing the mixture in a plastic bag and discarding it with normal household waste.

PhRMA supports providing consumer education about the importance of appropriately securing medicines in the home and safe disposal options for expired and unused medicine. MyOldMeds, an educational platform created and operated by PhRMA, is designed to drive public awareness about the importance of secure use, storage and disposal of medicines, as well as information about avoiding the misuse and abuse of prescription medicines. The program, which originated in New York and recently launched in Massachusetts and Louisiana, has plans to expand to other states and locales across the country.

PhRMA also supports the Drug Enforcement Administration’s National Take-Back Day. This program provides sites for patients to drop off unneeded prescription medications, which are then destroyed by local law enforcement officials.

The disposal mechanism for medical sharps is different. A “sharp” is a medical device with sharp points designed to puncture skin. Examples include needles, syringes and lancets. Needles and other sharps should never be placed in trash cans or recycling bins or flushed down the toilet. Improper disposal of sharps puts sanitation workers, housekeepers and family members at risk of injury. The best way to dispose of sharps is to place them in a disposal container immediately after use. Disposal containers should be made of leak-resistant, heavy-duty plastic. The container should close with a puncture-proof lid and should be properly labeled.

Learn more about disposing of your medical sharps via the FDA

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