Is the Internet Creating A New Generation of Pill-Poppers?

By Walter Armstrong 05/13/11

Why are young Americans downing prescription pills at a fever pitch? A major new study places much of the blame on the Web.

Americans with the most internet access are most likely to be hooked on pills.

The Web has been blamed for many things, but it's rarely been denounced as a "gateway drug." But a major new study may change that. Florida’s notorious pill-mills have received much of the blame for the explosion in prescription drug abuse that is quietly afflicting a new generation of Americans under 25. But recent research published in the respected scientific journal, Health Affairs, found that Americans who have the most access to the Internet are much more likely to be addicted to prescription pills than their peers who have restricted access.

Investigators at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of South California crunched a mountain of data to do their state-by-state analysis, comparing the growth of high-speed Internet use from 2000 to 2007 with the growth in admissions to treatment programs for substance abuse during the same years. The evidence they assembled is compelling: The five states with the highest jump in web access also had the biggest increase in admissions for Rx drug abuse treatment, while the five states with the smallest Internet expansion saw a correspondingly smaller bump in treatment admissions. The top five states were Montana, Maryland, Indiana, Kentucky, and Delaware. The bottom five states were: Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire, California, and Rhode Island.

Other statistics in the study speak for themselves:

• From 1999 to 2003, online sales of prescription drugs in the U.S. increased from $160 million to $3.2 billion.
• In 2007, an estimated 581 websites were selling controlled prescription drugs, but only two of them were legitimately certified to do so. Nearly 85% of these cyber pill mills required no prescription from their patients. 
• In 1997, only 18%  of US households had Internet at home; by 2007 the number had jumped to 61%.
• From 2000 to 2007 the number of people in treatment for addiction to narcotic pills like like Oxycodone and Vicodin  by 374%. At the same time, hospital  admissions for alcoholism and heroin fell by 9% and 8% respectively.

The investigators calculated that every 10% increase in the availability of high-speed Internet service results in a 1% increase in admissions for prescription drug abuse.

The Internet still runs a distant second to brick-and-mortar pharmacies—it’s estimated that only between 1% and 11% of all users cop their pills from the web. But according to the Department of Justice, cyberspace pill mills are quickly becoming a growing source of illicit drug trafficking as local dealers, including street and motorcycle gangs, buy bulk amounts of controlled drugs from the Internet and then selling them for a profit on the street. These rising figures are bound to be daunting to the FDA and other law enforcement officials, who have struggled to shut down online pharmacies with little success. It’s a dilemma that will be difficult to solve. After all, broadening America's access to the web is one of the Obama administration's top priorities. But as online access increases over the coming years, will addiction rates rise as well?

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Walter Armstrong is the Medical Editor at  Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness and the former deputy editor of The Fix. You can find him on Linkedin.