Survey Shows Prescription Drug Abuse Common in Military

A Pentagon health survey found that in a one-year period, about one in four soldiers admit abusing prescription drugs, most of them painkillers. The study, which surveyed more than 28,500 U.S. troops last year, showed that about 20 percent of Marines had also abused prescription drugs (mostly painkillers) in that same period.

Gregg Zoroya of USA Today writes that these findings show the continued toll on the military from fighting wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, wars that have required troops to serve multiple combat deployments.

“We are aware that more prescription drugs are being used today for pain management and behavioral health issues,” said Brig. Gen. Colleen McGuire, director of the Army Suicide Prevention Task Force. “These areas of substance abuse along with increased use of alcohol concern us.”

The survey showed that pain relievers were the most abused drug in the military, used illicitly at a rate triple that of marijuana or amphetamines, the next most widely abused drugs.

About 15 percent of soldiers and 10 percent of Marines said they had abused prescription drugs in the 30 days before they were questioned for the survey.

Prescription drug abuse is “an issue for American society as well, and we’re looking at it from every possible angle,” McGuire said.

Painkiller abuse among troops has soared since 2005, the last time a similar study was conducted. The 2005 survey showed that 4 percent of soldiers had abused painkillers in the previous 30 days, compared with 13 percent in 2008. Abuse within the previous year was 10 percent in 2005 compared with 22 percent in 2008.

The authors of the report said different questions were used in 2008 compared with previous years, which makes an exact comparison difficult.

The 2008 survey asked more specific questions, such as whether troops were engaged in any non-medical use of the drugs they were prescribed.

Prescription drug abuse among the civilian population dropped in 2008 compared with 2007, a federal report released in September shows.

USA Today reported last year that narcotic pain-relief prescriptions for injured or wounded U.S. troops jumped from 30,000 a month to 50,000 since the Iraq war began.
Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Army surgeon general, created a task force this year to review the service’s pain management practices.

In addition, the Army is expanding programs to treat and educate soldiers about drug abuse. But the service struggles to provide enough drug counselors and needs to hire 270 to 300, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff, said last month.

The survey also found that nearly 60 percent of Marines admit engaging in binge drinking. The rate of heavy alcohol use—defined as five or more drinks per occasion once a week—among all servicemembers ages 18 to 35 remained higher than in the civilian population.


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The Pain of Addiction

Vicodin addiction often starts innocently enough. Most people start taking Vicodin or other pain medications after surgery or an injury. But then they can’t stop. They need more to get the same pain relief. They start doctor shopping to get more pills. And the cycle continues until it takes over their lives.