Non-medical prescription drug use, defined as consumption of a medication that has not been prescribed to the user or that is taken for its euphoric effects, is a significant issue in Europe and the UK in particular, according to the results of a study published recently in BMC Psychiatry.
For the EU-Meds Study, researchers questioned a total of 22,070 people aged 12 to 49 years in Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Spain and Sweden. Lifetime and past-year non-medical use of prescription medications such as stimulants, opioids, and sedatives were determined using a modified version of the World Health Organisation’s Composite International Diagnostic Interview.
The results showed that lifetime prevalence of non-medical prescription drug use across the five countries was highest for opioids (13.5%), followed by sedatives (10.9%) and stimulants (7.0%). Past-year prevalence showed a similar pattern, at 5.0% for opioids, 5.8% for sedatives and 2.8% for stimulants.
Germany exhibited the lowest levels of non-medical prescription drug use, with Great Britain, Spain, and Sweden having the highest levels. Rates of past-year non-medical prescription drug use were around twice as high in Britain as in Germany for stimulants (3.9% vs 2.2%), opioids (6.2% vs 2.9%) and sedatives (5.7% vs 2.8%).
Mental and sexual health risk factors were associated with an increased likelihood of non-medical prescription drug use within the past year. About 32%, 28%, and 52% of individuals reporting non-medical use within the past year of opioids, sedatives, and stimulants, respectively, also consumed illicit drugs.
Sharing of prescription medications by friends or family was the main method of acquisition, accounting for 44% of opioid misuse and 62% of sedative misuse. Internet pharmacies were also a common source of opioids (4.1%), stimulants (7.6%) and sedatives (2.7%).
Despite methodological differences between studies conducted in the US and the EU, the findings suggest that the prevalence of non-medical prescription drug is likely to be lower in Europe.
The authors caution that the findings should not be construed as a recommendation against prescribing medications to treat legitimate conditions.