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Report: Military Must Deal With Substance Abuse

A report released today adds weight to calls for the Pentagon do more.

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By Chrisanne Grise

09/17/12

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Alcohol and prescription drug abuse is reportedly getting out of control in the US military, and a blue ribbon committee is today urging the Pentagon to acknowledge the crisis and take steps to deal with it. The report, produced by an Institute of Medicine panel, calls for stronger policing of underage drinking, restricting access to booze on bases and updating the treatment programs available—as many haven’t changed since the Vietnam War. And it coincides with The Fix's report today on the addiction problems that plague returning veterans, and what is and isn't being done about it. 

"I think they're ready to acknowledge that they can do better," says Dennis McCarty, a public health expert on the panel. The military is dealing with record numbers of suicides, which are often linked to drug or alcohol abuse. The rate of prescription drugs supplied by the military has also increased fivefold since the Afghanistan War began in 2001: Nearly 5 million prescriptions for pain medications, tranquilizers, muscle relaxants, stimulants and barbiturates were issued last year. The problem is the worst in the Army, where one in four soldiers in 2008 admitted to abusing prescription drugs. Data also suggests that binge drinking—the consumption of five or more drinks in a sitting—is 50% higher among military members aged 18-35 than among civilians. 

Efforts to help include an experimental Army project that provides soldiers with confidential counseling; while successful, it only exists at 10% Army installations, so the panel urges its expansion to all bases and to the Navy, Marines and Air Force. (The Marines are also making efforts to curb their boozing.) For now, Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith says military health officials are in the process of analyzing the report’s recommendations. "But most importantly, we want to do the right thing by the servicemember,” she says. “If there are areas in need of improvement, then we will work to improve those areas. The health and well-being of our service members is paramount."

 

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