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Prescription drug abuse is the fastest-growing addiction problem in the nation, according to experts. In Western New York, an estimated 1 in 5 young adults between ages 18 and 25 is either dependent on or abusing prescription painkillers.

More than 50 community groups have launched a massive awareness campaign aimed at preventing painkiller abuse.

Anne D. Constantino is president and CEO of Horizon Health Services. She talked with The Buffalo News’ Brian Meyer. Here is a summary of an interview that is part of the weekly “In Focus” series; watch the full interview above.

Meyer: Some advocates have used words like “crisis” and “epidemic” to describe this problem. Do you think that’s an overstatement?

Constantino: I don’t. I think this is unprecedented. The [federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call] this an epidemic. … You’re looking at 15,000 deaths just from prescription drugs each year. That doesn’t include the deaths from heroin and other drugs mixed. And it doesn’t include deaths due to suicide and accidents related to drugs.

Meyer: We did a series at The Buffalo News a couple of years ago and talked about how overdoses involving opiates were larger in number … than cocaine and heroin combined. That speaks volumes.

Constantino: In Horizon’s experience, the overdoses that we have seen have more than doubled in the past couple of years.

Meyer: When we talk about prescription drugs, most people don’t think of them in the same category as cocaine or heroin. So what kind of challenge do you have with this awareness campaign?

Constantino: I actually wish that we were able to work with people who are in the early stages of prescription drug abuse. Because often by the time they come into treatment, they’re pretty seriously addicted. They’re using large quantities of pills and/or they have moved on to heroin.

Meyer: Some people are legitimately using these prescription for medical purposes. How do you [convey the dangers] to them?

Constantino: The people that have legitimate pain need to work with a doctor – a pain specialist – that really knows about addiction and understands addiction. … The kind of people that we see are people that may have been prescribed at one time a painkiller for a short-term problem like a toothache, then had a surplus of that medication and kept taking it because they liked it [after] the pain in their tooth is gone. …

Many people have taken prescription drugs at some point in their life … that just contributes to making people feel like they’re safe. It’s the addiction potential of those drugs that people don’t realize.

Meyer: Some are probably going to say, “Wait a minute. Is an awareness campaign going to do anything?”

Constantino: I really think that that’s a critical first step, if you will. I talk to a lot of families who are concerned … about their older adolescent/young adult children. They don’t understand how significant a problem prescription drugs can be. Some parents when they talk about their young adult [children] abusing drugs, abusing alcohol or abusing marijuana, some adults in our generation say it’s kind of a rite of passage. This is what kids do. When you get into prescription drugs, you’re talking about a whole different level of abuse which quickly – before somebody knows it – can lead to a physical addiction and a craving that requires them to keep fueling that habit.

Meyer: Has headway been made, in your estimation, in dealing with it at the law enforcement end?

Constantino: We made huge progress last year with the I-STOP [Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing] legislation. That was really Avi Israel locally who did that. … That’s the database, now the central registry, for all these types of drugs. … New York State has done very well setting up the infrastructure to fight this type of addiction.