DA: Heroin addiction often starts with pill abuse

Curbing prescription drug abuse may be one antidote to the county’s heroin epidemic, District Attorney Eric R. Linhardt said at Wednesday’s Lycoming-Sullivan Counties Borough Association meeting.

Whereas 89 percent of surveyed teenagers disapproved of heroin use, one in 14 admitted to having abused prescription drugs, according to statistics cited by Linhardt. One in five teenagers said prescription painkillers aren’t addictive.

Many heroin addicts started out by abusing prescription drugs, Linhardt said. Often kept in unlocked medicine cabinets, prescription drugs are relatively easy for teenagers to obtain. Parents also don’t consider prescription drug use as serious as heroin addiction, according to survey results cited by Linhardt.

“We’re sending the wrong message to our children,” Linhardt said.

Social acceptance of prescription drugs is partly attributable to legislation, state Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport, said. In 1999, the Food and Drug Administration began allowing pharmaceutical companies to advertise prescription drugs on television.

“The message that youth are getting from these ads is that prescription drug use is okay,” Mirabito said.

In 1970, 2 billion prescription pills were sold. Now, 150 billion prescription pills are sold each year, according to statistics cited by Mirabito.

“The key to preventing heroin use is to lower addiction to prescription opiates,” Linhardt said.

Pending legislation proposes the creation of a prescription drug database that would help prevent “doctor shopping,” according to Linhardt.

“One of the problems with prescription abuse is that addicts will shop from one doctor to the next, getting prescriptions for medicine they already have. Since doctors can’t talk to each other, they don’t know,” Linhardt said.

The database not only would enable doctors to confirm a patient’s prescription history but also allow law enforcement to quickly identify “pill mills,” or clinics where physicians are abusing their prescription-writing privileges, according to Linhardt.

Prescription take-back boxes may also be part of the solution.

“Our young people are abusing prescription medications that they get out of their own parents’ or grandparents’ medicine cabinets. These take-back boxes allow them to dispose of medications in the home that they don’t need anymore,” Linhardt said.

Prescription return receptacles have been installed at numerous police departments across the county. Even though there hasn’t been any public announcements advertising these boxes, they already are overflowing, according to Linhardt.