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Community focuses on prescription drug abuse
Gov. Deal, state and local officials join in kickoff campaign
Rusty Grant, special agent in charge with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, talks about drug-related deaths in the state during this afternoon's kick-off of the Hall County Coalition for the Prevention of Prescription Drug Abuse at the Walters Auditorium inside the Northeast Georgia Medical Center. The event was hosted by the Medical Association of Georgia Foundation. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Hall County health officials have begun an effort to address a growing concern involving prescription drug abuse in the county.

Several Hall County and state officials were joined by Gov. Nathan Deal Tuesday afternoon at Northeast Georgia Medical Center to kick off the campaign.

The Drug Free Coalition of Hall County is partnering with the medical center and the Medical Association of Georgia Foundation for a yearlong initiative to address the problem that has grown significantly in the past decade.

“Prescription drug abuse, just like illegal drug abuse, ruins lives, and it destroys
families,” Deal said. “It disrupts our health care delivery system and it makes it harder for the medical community to get the drugs that are needed to the right people.”

Deal was joined by his son, Jason Deal, Superior Court judge for the Northeast Circuit, as well as Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, state Rep. Carl Rogers, Carol Burrell, medical center president and CEO, and Dan DeLoach, president of the medical association.

Tommy Bagwell, owner of American Proteins in Cumming, and his wife Chantal donated $100,000 to the Medical Association of Georgia to be used in the effort to bring awareness to prescription drug abuse.

“We have seen the problem in both sides of our family,” Bagwell said referring to prescription drug abuse. “I got a little more educated on the statistics and they’re astounding.”

A large focus of the program is prescription drug abuse among high school age students. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 5 U.S. high school students have taken prescription drugs without a being prescribed by a doctor.

The age group with the highest number of accidental prescription overdose deaths in Hall County in 2010, though, was among the 20- to 30-year-old group, according to the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.

The drugs that are of main concern to health officials include OxyCotin, Percocet, Vicodin, Adderall, Ritalin and Xanax.

Rusty Grant, special agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said emergency room visits in the U.S. involving nonmedical use of prescription narcotic pain relievers increased 111 percent from 2004 to 2008.

Grant said the GBI realized prescription drug abuse was becoming a problem several years ago, but other drugs were of more concern until recently.

Many of the speakers said physicians are a key factor in ridding the county’s prescription drug problem.

“I want the physicians, the pharmacists and the law enforcement officers to all have the tools they need to try to be effective in dealing with it ... and to ensure, as nearly as possible, that dangerous prescription drugs only go to those who really need them,” Nathan Deal said.

A growing concern among law enforcement is the increase in pill mills in which doctors, clinics or pharmacies prescribe drugs inappropriately or for non-medical reasons.

“(Members of the General Assembly) told us that Georgia was becoming the place where the pill mills were located,” Nathan Deal said. “They had a crackdown, I believe, in Florida and they migrated here to our state, so as a result of that we have taken legislative action ... in that regard.”

However, the majority of prescription drugs abused come from family and friends.

“Everyone thinks it all comes from the pill mills, but that’s only 30 percent,” said Jack Chapman, former president of the Medical Association of Georgia Foundation.

The other 70 percent originate from the cabinets of family and friends, he said.

Chapman said the problem must be addressed early because the negative physical outcomes are often tough to reverse.

“Once the chemistry in the brain changes, it rarely goes back to normal,” he said.

The Drug Free Coalition of Hall County also hosted it’s initial presentation Tuesday night at Northeast Georgia Medical Center to begin the initiative.

Merrill Norton, clinical associate professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Pharmacy, was the keynote speaker.

His presentation focused mainly on the health care industry and how health professionals must lead the way to rid the prescription drug abuse problem.

Norton said the commonly misused drugs are split into three categories consisting of opiates, stimulants and depressants.
Norton said Hydrocodone is the most prescribed drug in the U.S. and is also one of the most misused drugs.

In 2004, the U.S. used 99 percent of the world’s Hydrocodone supply, Norton said.

However, opiates, which are essentially pain relievers, are the largest group of prescription drugs abused.

Norton said all these prescription drugs are necessary, but they must be taken appropriately.

“We have all these things that people love to take, and they’re very good, if you take them as prescribed,” he said.