“Respectable Addicts”

The face of drug addiction is changing. While the general perception of a drug addict is a young person in their teens or twenties struggling to maintain employment and having the appearance of someone down on their luck, that stereotype is being offset by a new group of people struggling with drug abuse: the “respectable addict.”

Many drug addicts are, in fact, individuals in their 50s and 60s, living in comfortable middle-class homes and well-established in their careers. Originally prescribed a pain reliever for a valid chronic pain problem, they became addicted to a medication and have struggled to overcome their prescription drug addiction.

A new study developed by Dr. Richard Cooper, lecturer in public health at the School of Health and Related Research at the University of Sheffield, examines the problems associated with over-the-counter (OTC) medicine abuse. The report was published by the Pharmacy Practice Research Trust and was funded through its Research Awards program.

The study sought to understand current issues relating to OTC medicine addiction by examining the factors affecting individuals. The study included information gathered from pharmacists, medicines counter assistants (MCAs) and key stakeholders.

The report indicates that there is a range of problems associated with codeine-based medications purchased from pharmacies. Individuals participating in the qualitative study indicated that their use of codeine-containing medication began with a genuine medical reason.

Three types of abuse were designated based on the amount of medication used, ranging from “never exceeding maximum recommended dosage” to “using significantly higher levels of medication than recommended.” The participants described withdrawal symptoms and admitted to using the medication for different reasons than originally intended. All had attempted to stop using the medication.

The individuals had used various means to stop using the medication, ranging from Internet support groups to medical treatment. However, none of the participants sought pharmacy advice, citing the need to hide their addiction as a reason to avoid seeking help at a pharmacy or substance abuse treatment facility.

The study found that the individuals were more likely to blame themselves for the addiction rather than finding fault with a lack of pharmacy regulation or manufacturers or doctors failing to warn them about the potential dangers of the medication. The individuals in the study were called “respectable addicts” because there was a desire consistent among participants to be distinct from the associations typically made when considering drug addiction.

Dr. Cooper and colleagues indicated that a major tension emerging from the study is the need for availability of medications for the public while protecting individuals from the potential harms of OTC drug addiction. There is also a perception that OTC medications are less harmful than prescription medications, but individuals must be informed that many OTC drugs are still highly addictive.