Michael Jackson and prescription drugs: a window on a broader US issue?

Although no official determination about his death has been made, the case is shining new light on the widespread abuse of doctor-prescribed drugs.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The ongoing investigation into Michael Jackson's death has stirred many questions about the pop icon's use of prescription drugs and whether overmedicating played a role.

While the official cause is not expected for several weeks, colleagues and friends of Mr. Jackson have suggested that a misuse of prescription medication may have been a factor, shining new light on the widespread abuse of doctor-prescribed drugs.

"The abuse of these drugs is only second to the abuse of marijuana," says Gary Boggs, executive assistant of the Drug Enforcement Agency's Office of Diversion Control, the arm of the DEA that investigates unlawful trafficking of prescription medications.

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Of the estimated 7 million Americans who abuse prescription drugs, he says, about 5.2 million of them are involved in some kind of improper use of pain relievers, such as Vicodin or OxyContin.

At least 8,500 deaths in 2005 were attributed to the overuse of painkillers, according to the DEA. That's a 114 percent increase in the number of fatalities associated with such abuse since 2001. And between 2004 and 2006, there was a 39 percent spike in the number of emergency-room visits that were connected to pain-reliever abuse.

The number of people who seek treatment for painkiller addictions has also been rising. Five percent of all admissions to rehabilitation facilities was due to prescription medication abuse in 2007, a jump from just 1 percent in 1997, according to the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America.

Hollywood has had some high-profile deaths and scandals associated with prescription drugs. Most recently, the fatalities of actor Heath Ledger and model Anna Nicole Smith were blamed on accidental overdoses of prescription meds. Before them, Elvis Presley died after using a dangerous mixture of medications.

While celebrity cases often gain the most attention, what's most troubling to Sean Clarkin, director of strategy for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, is the attitude among young people when it comes to nonmedical use of prescription drugs.

"There is a relatively low perception of risk," Mr. Clarkin says. "Some of those attitudes that kids have are shared by their parents.... There is a cultural climate – the 'pill for any ill' mentality is contributing to this."

Then again, no solid evidence has yet emerged that Jackson was overusing or mixing meds. A spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner's office said that Jackson, who has admitted to be being addicted to pain medication in the past, was taking "some prescription medication." But he said that more tests would be required to determine if they contributed to his death.

Police have been attempting to track down doctors who may have treated Jackson or prescribed him medication over the past several years, the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday. Initially, Conrad Murray, a cardiologist who was by Jackson's side before he was taken to the hospital, found himself in media spotlight.

Mr. Murray's lawyer told the Associated Press that his client did not prescribe painkillers such as Demerol or OxyContin to the pop star.

Drug-prevention experts say that the question over prescription drugs in the Jackson case should be a moment to reexamine the potential effects of abusing painkillers. "This is a teachable moment for parents," says Clarkin, "to communicate with their kids about abusing this stuff."

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