A new report says substance abuse, prescription-drug abuse, is one of Durham’s biggest public health problems, accounting for growing numbers of emergency room visits, hospitalizations and deaths.
The report, “Substance Use and Abuse in Durham County,” was prepared by the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy and sponsored by the Durham Together for Resilient Youth (TRY), a community coalition.
About 19,000 Durham residents, including 1,000 children, abused or were addicted to alcohol, illegal drugs or prescription medications in 2012, according to the report.
Among its findings:
• From 2010-12, residents made more than 3,000 visits a year to a hospital ER for substance use, an 11.6 percent increase for adults and a 64.7 percent increase for juveniles.
• The number of deaths due to substance use increased by one-third from 2004-06, which averaged 34 deaths, to 2009-11, which averaged 48 deaths.
• At the same time, deaths due to prescription drugs surged – up 75 percent, compared to a 17 percent increase for heroin deaths and a 10 percent drop for cocaine deaths.
The actual numbers of prescription drug deaths are small – 22 in 2010, 16 in 2011.
But the trend, a doubling in seven years, is troubling, experts say.
They hope the report – which culls data from state and local agencies, law enforcement, public health and community groups – helps get people talking about a problem many don’t realize exists or may underestimate.
“Most reports look at only one aspect of a problem,” said Joel Rosch, senior research scholar at the Duke center and a member of the Durham TRY board.
“Police report on arrests. Social services may talk about kids being placed out of the home,” he explained. “The only way you can get a grip on how substance abuse is affecting people is to look at things at the same time.”
Durham TRY members began doing that last month as they pored over the report’s findings.
The coalition, which was founded 10 years ago, recently received a five-year $625,000 federal grant to supports its work. TRY is not a program, founder Wanda Boone, stresses, but a group that brings together other groups to change attitudes and behavior.
And attitudes and behavior do change, Boone told members at a meeting at the Durham County Library.
“If you didn’t have an ash tray in your house in the ‘60s and ‘70s, that was bad taste,” she said. Today, “if you see someone lighting in a restaurant, it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness!’ That’s how policies have changed.”
Durham TRY has worked with store owners on a Good Neighbor Policy, a non-binding agreement in which convenience store owners and managers agree not to sell alcohol, alcohol containing products and tobacco to minors. It has lobbied against concentrating stores that sell alcohol in poorer neighborhoods based on studies that show more such stores leads to more crime.
Targeting prescription drug abuse presents new challenges.
The drugs are as close as the bathroom medicine cabinet or a classmate’s book bag.
Just over one in five Durham high school students, 21.7 percent, said they have taken a prescription drug without a doctor’s prescription, according to the Durham Youth Risk Behavior Survey. That was nearly twice the percentage, 12.7 percent, just four years earlier.
‘The perception with prescription drugs is they’re less risky,” said Elizabeth Gifford, a research scientist at the Duke center who prepared the report with Kelly Evans and Rachel Weber.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called prescription drug abuse an epidemic, according to the report
In Durham, prescription drugs caused 29 percent of all toxin-related deaths from 2004-11. While that was still less than alcohol (42 percent), it was more than cocaine (21 percent) and heroin (6 percent).
Public awareness may increase with efforts like Operation Medicine Drop.
The collaboration between Safe Kids North Carolina and local law enforcement agencies encourages people to dispose of unused medication in a permanent drop box in the lobby of the Durham Police Department headquarters on West Chapel Hill Street.
In one day, the report said, residents dropped in more than 34,000 pills, as well as needles, creams and other medications.