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Prescription drug abuse in Utah
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In any given year, Utah ranks among the worst offenders in the dark realm of prescription drug abuse. A recent study reveals certain factors associated with deaths attributed to this abuse. Long-term strategies are needed to effectively combat this problem.

The study released by the Utah Department of Health highlights financial problems, a history of previous substance abuse and mental health concerns with the 432 drug overdose deaths. Among the valuable recommendations of the study is greater awareness of risk factors by doctors who prescribe pain medication.

Additional strategies are needed to combat drug abuse on a large scale. As the production and distribution of drugs becomes more complex, law enforcement has an increasingly difficult time keeping pace. It is an even larger challenge for society to come up with updated strategies to combat prescription drug abuse in particular and overall substance abuse in general.

Drug abuse is a complex issue and multiple strategies can be effective in curbing the problem.

In particular, I suggest three strategies which if used concurrently can do much to eliminate the ills associated with substance abuse.

First, there must be public awareness of the dangers of prescription drug abuse. Several years ago, the state of Montana introduced groundbreaking ads warning of the dangers of methamphetamine. The ads had a very positive impact. Utah followed suit with its own successful program. While methamphetamine may be associated with more crime, prescription drug abuse continues to rise as a threat to public safety. A long and consistent media campaign directed towards the 25-to-54-year-old demographic would be a worthwhile investment.

Second, there must be public support for those who need help with addiction. A significant barrier to progress by addicts is a lack of support from family, friends, and community. It is much easier to view drug abuse as a taboo subject than it is to accept the reality that it affects nearly all of us in one way or another.

Drug abuse cannot be tolerated, but we need to be careful that we do not mistake a general "war on drugs" with a "war on drug users." Until we recognize the innate worth of those entrenched in addiction as human beings, our efforts to combat the plague of substance abuse will be significantly slowed.

Finally, there must be a proper understanding of the origins of addiction. In some circles, drug abuse is seen as nothing more than a genetic shortcoming. In others, addiction is seen as a lack of willpower.

Many factors play into substance abuse, and to focus on only one prevents our ability to solve the problem. The U.S. Department of Health views drug abuse as a biopsychosocial disease, meaning that biological, psychological, and social factors all play a part. To ignore any aspect of drug abuse at the expense of focusing on another is to have only part of the picture. To successfully combat drug abuse, we must understand that many variables are involved.

Prescription drug abuse shows little sign of slowing down, especially in Utah. To combat this evolving problem, we need strategies which address long-term public awareness, appropriate public support and a proper view of the true nature of substance abuse. While many tools can be used to curb the problem, a commitment to these three strategies will likely yield long-term success.

Kurt Manwaring has worked with the drug court program in Salt Lake County and has published two academic journal articles on issues related to substance abuse.

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