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Drug czar urges dentists to raise awareness about prescription drug abuse in conference keynote address

Gil Kerlikowske had been the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy for about a week when he received a letter.

Image: Gil Kerlikowske
Mr. Kerlikowske

It came from a woman whose father had seen Mr. Kerlikowske on TV talking about the stigma of having an addiction. Her husband, a former dentist, began prescribing himself Vicodin and was now an addict.

Like many dentists, this man was a pillar of his community, a recognized leader, Mr. Kerlikowske said. So it was inconceivable for him to seek treatment in his hometown, fearing his addiction would be discovered. So the couple drove two hours one way for him to get the help he needed.

The letter stuck with Mr. Kerlikowske, who assumed his position as the nation’s drug czar in spring of 2009. It was one of the catalysts for the strategy employed by his office in 2010. For the first time, recovery would be emphasized.

Mr. Kerlikowske told this story as the keynote speaker at the American Dental Association’s 2011 Dentist Health and Wellness Conference Aug. 18 at ADA Headquarters. It kicked off a presentation about the nation’s prescription drug abuse problem and what he thinks dentists can do to raise awareness and help fix the issue.

“You’ve got a huge role to play, and you’re already doing it,” Mr. Kerlikowske said, praising the efforts of those who attended the conference and participated in a dialogue about addiction.

The idea is to recognize the importance of celebrating recovery, identify ways to remove barriers to recovery and understand that recovery is a lifelong process, Mr. Kerlikowske said. It’s also about changing public opinion and looking at drug abuse as less of a criminal act and more as a disease, he said.

“We can’t arrest our way out of these problems,” Mr. Kerlikowske said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies the prescription drug abuse problem as an epidemic and 478 million prescriptions for controlled medicines were dispensed in the United States in 2010, Mr. Kerlikowske said. One in three people who used drugs for the first time in 2009 said they began by using a prescription drug for nonmedical reasons, he said. Six in 10 abused substances in the past year among high school seniors were prescription drugs, Mr. Kerlikowske said.

That was a fact not lost on the dentists in attendance. Dr. Brett Kessler, a Colorado dentist who also runs an annual wellness conference in Utah, reminded Mr. Kerlikowske during a question and answer session that many teenagers have their first foray with prescription drugs when they have their wisdom teeth taken out and are given medicine for the pain.

Prescription drug abuse has also created an economic problem, costing the United States $55.7 billion in 2007, Mr. Kerlikowske said. Illicit drug use cost $193 billion in 2007 more than the cost of diabetes, he said.

Studies show that teens perceive prescription medication abuse as safer, less addictive and less risky than using illegal or illicit drugs and that drugs obtained from a medicine cabinet or pharmacy were not the same as drugs obtained from a drug dealer, Mr. Kerlikowske said.

“People don’t see it as a risk,” Mr. Kerlikowske said. “After all, it’s a prescription. It came out of my parents’ medicine cabinet or someone else’s medicine cabinet.”

It’s dentists’ job to educate their patients about the risk of opioids and other controlled substances and how to use, store and dispose of them properly, Mr. Kerlikowske said. Dentists can also use prescription drug monitoring programs to keep an eye on what their patients are taking and why. The education of the dentist should extend beyond their practice into the community, Mr. Kerlikowske said.

“When their voices are raised on a particular issue, it has an incredible impact on a community,” Mr. Kerlikowske said.