Pharmaceutical drugs seem to be everywhere. Television ads, simple observation, and stories from family and friends would suggest they've become increasingly prevalent. After only a brief investigation, the hard evidence quickly mounts.

Let's begin with a report issued by the National Center for Health Statistics; it estimates nearly half (49 percent) of Americans took at least one prescription drug during the past 30 days during 2007-2010. This is an increase from the period between 1988 and 1994, when 38 percent of Americans could say the same. Overall, spending for prescription drugs amounted to roughly $259 billion in 2010.

Women were more likely to use prescription drugs than men from 2007 to 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and use of prescription drugs increased with age. In that time period, antidepressants were the most commonly used prescription drug for adults aged 20 to 59, while Americans older than that favored cholesterol-lowering and high blood pressure drugs.

Meanwhile, prescription drug misuse has become rampant. Of those drugs most likely to be abused, pharmaceutical drugs (as a category, and most commonly including opioid pain relievers, such as Vicodin) are second only to marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. As part of a polling project it began in January 2012, Reuters/Ipsos obtained its own information on prescription drug activity among adult Americans.

What new data did the poll uncover?

The New Gateway

One in 10 Americans reports using prescription drugs prescribed for someone else, according to the Reuters/Ipsos poll, while a quarter of those users took them simply to get high.

Many people, possibly as high as three-quarters, may be using other people’s pharmaceuticals for economic reasons. Certainly anyone familiar with chat rooms for major illnesses has encountered both offers and requests for unused prescription meds. “I have a three month supply of [name of drug], if anyone needs it,” a patient or even grieving spouse might announce to the general community. Because the Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that roughly two-thirds obtained the drugs from a family member, friend, or acquaintance, this sad hypothesis may stand up under scrutiny.

Another concern underlying these and other statistics is the number of deaths caused by prescription drug abuse. For instance, the Foundation for a Drug-Free World estimates that of the 22,400 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. during 2005, opioid painkillers accounted for slightly more than a third (38.2 percent). The Foundation also notes on its website that almost half of teens believe prescription drugs are much safer than street drugs while 60 to 70 percent name their medicine cabinets as their source.

Finally, teens who abuse prescription drugs are twice as likely to use alcohol, five times more likely to use marijuana, and 12 to 20 times more likely to use street drugs than teens who do not abuse prescription drugs, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

Who would disagree that the new gateway drug for teens waits for them at home on a shelf in the bathroom?