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Popping Pills: Prescription Drug Abuse in America

NIDA recently challenged the public to create Infographics that present current scientific  information about prescription drug abuse in interesting, novel, and creative ways to help inform and educate the general public. We awarded 3 prizes and over the next several months, the other prize winning graphics will be displayed online.  The second place prize went to Shane Jones, Ashley Mentzer, and Adrienne Wolter for their entry Popping Pills: The Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic in America. The misuse and abuse of prescription medications in the United States remains high, but few people are aware of just how big the problem really is. In its candy-coated hues, this infographic shares the pill popping reality of the situation, from the numbers of abusers to the places they obtain their drugs and their reasons for abusing. With this infographic, their goal was to use the casual spin usually associated with prescription drug abuse – it’s not abuse, it’s just popping pills – to emphasize its seriousness--that prescription drug abuse is a growing problem in the United States today, one that demands our attention.

Infographic - see text below for description

The United States has 5% of the world’s population & consumes 75% of the world’s prescription drugs. See text for more info.

The number of prescription medicine abusers in 2010 was 8.76 million. See text for more info.

Non-medical use of prescription drugs by state. See text for more info.

Where are prescription drugs obtained. See text for more info.

Twelve reasons why teens use prescription drugs. See text for more info.

Sources. See text for more info.

Text Description of Infographic

Figure 1: 52 Million people in the US, over the age of 12, have used prescription drugs non-medically in their lifetime.1

Figure 2: 6.1 Million people have used them non-medically in the past month.2  5 percent of the United States is the world's population and consumes 75 percent of the the world's prescription drugs.3

Figure 3: In 2010, enough prescription painkillers were prescribed to medicate every american adult every 4 hours for 1 month.4

The number of prescription medicine abusers in 2010 was 8.76 million. Most abused prescription drugs fall under 3 categories: 5

  • Painkillers: 5.1 million
  • Tranquilizers: 2.2 million
  • Stimulants: 1.1 million

Figure 4: Non-medical use of prescription drugs by state6

Figure 5: Where are prescription drugs obtained?7

  • 0.3%: Bought on the internet
  • 1.9%: More than one doctor
  • 2.2%: Other
  • 3.9%: Drug dealer or stranger
  • 16.6% Bought/took from friend or relative
  • 18.1%: One doctor
  • 54.2%: FREE from friend or relative

Figure 6: Twelve reasons teens use prescription drugs:8

  1. 62%: Easy to get from parent's medicine cabinets
  2. 52%: Available everywhere
  3. 51%: They are not illegal drugs
  4. 50%: Easy to get through other people's prescriptions
  5. 49%: Can claim to have prescription if caught
  6. 43%: They are cheap
  7. 35%: Safer to use than illegal drugs
  8. 33%: Less shame attached to using
  9. 32%: Easy to purchase over the internet
  10. 32%: Fewer side effects than street drugs
  11. 25%: Can be used as study aids
  12. 21%: Parents don't care as much if caught

Figure 7: Sources

  1. NSDUH: http://www.samhsa.gov/data/NSDUH/2k11Results/NSDUHresults2011.htm
  2. NSDUH: http://www.samhsa.gov/data/2k12/NSDUH115/sr115-nonmedical-use-pain-relievers.htm
  3. PBS: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/prescription-drug-abuse-top-10-things-cdc-says-you-should-know/​
  4. UNODC: http://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/WDR2011/World_Drug_Report_2011_ebook.pdf (PDF, 10MB)
  5. University of Texas: https://www.utexas.edu/research/cswr/gcattc/documents/PrescriptionTrends_Web.pdf (PDF, 267KB)
  6. FDA: http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm220112.htm
  7. Drug Abuse.gov: /publications/topics-in-brief/prescription-drug-abuse

Fast Facts:

In 2011, 52 million people in the US age 12+ had used prescription drugs nonmedically at least once in their lifetime, 6.2 million in the past month.

“Combating Misuse and Abuse of Prescription Drugs: Q&A with Michael Klein, Ph.D.” Consumer Updates. United States Food and Drug Administration, 28 July 2010. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm220112.htm

The United States has 5% of the world’s population & consumes 75% of the world’s prescription drugs.
Source: http://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/WDR2011/World_Drug_Report_2011_ebook.pdf (PDF, 10MB)
OLD: Yachter, David (2009). Born a Champion: The Master Strategy for Maximum Health and Lasting Success. Outskirts Press.

Enough prescription painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult every 4 hours for one month.
Kane, Jason. “Prescription Drug Abuse: Top 10 things CDC Says You Should Know.” PBS Newshour, 2013.

The number of prescription medicine abusers in 2010 was 7 million.
“Topics in Brief: Prescription Drug Abuse.” National Institute on Drug Abuse

Painkillers: 5.1 million abusers
Tranquilizers: 2.2 million abusers
Stimulants: 1.1 million abusers
“Topics in Brief: Prescription Drug Abuse.” National Institute on Drug Abuse

Map: nonmedical use of prescription drugs by state
“State Estimates of Nonmedical Use of Prescription Pain Relievers.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 8 Jan. 2013.

Double pie chart: where prescription drugs are obtained
“Results from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Sept. 2012.

Reasons Teens Cite for Using Prescription Drugs
Maxwell, Jane Carlisle. “Trends in the Abuse of Prescription Drugs.” The Gulf Coast Addiction Technology Transfer Center. The University of Texas at Austin, Nov. 2006. https://www.utexas.edu/research/cswr/gcattc/documents/PrescriptionTrends_Web.pdf (PDF, 267KB)


On the 52 Million.  This stat is actually reported to be the same number in 2011 via the NIDA, Nov. 2011 report.  Here’s another source: http://www.justice.gov/dea/pr/multimedia-library/publications/prescription_for_disaster_english.pdf (PDF, 4MB)

In 2011, there were 6.1 million persons (2.4 percent) aged 12 or older who used prescription-type psychotherapeutic drugs nonmedically in the past month. These estimates were lower than the estimates in 2010 (7.0 million or 2.7 percent)

6.1 MILLION people have used them non-medically in the past month.
http://www.samhsa.gov/data/NSDUH/2k11Results/NSDUHresults2011.htm (NSDUH, 2011)

Among youths aged 12 to 17, the rate of current nonmedical use of prescription-type drugs declined from 4.0 percent in 2002 to 2.8 percent in 2011. The rate of nonmedical pain reliever use declined during this period from 3.2 to 2.3 percent among youths. = 2.8% of population at end of 2011 (312.8 million)   - That means the # of Prescription Medicine Abusers in 2010 was: 8.76 MILLION.

US Population: End of 2011 - 312.8 Million http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/robert-schlesinger/2011/12/30/us-population-2012-nearly-313-million-people

This publication is available for your use and may be reproduced in its entirety without permission from NIDA. Citation of the source is appreciated, using the following language: Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

This page was last updated January 2014