Study: Nearly Half of Military Binge Drinks; Painkiller Abuse Skyrockets

Prescription painkiller abuse has increased five fold since 2002.

Prescription pills on a spoon.
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Alcohol and prescription drug abuse has increased among active members of the military over the course of the past few years, according to a new report by the National Academy of Sciences.

Prescription drug abuse (mainly painkillers and other opioids) doubled from 2 percent in 2002 to 4 percent in 2005. From 2005 to 2008, abuse nearly tripled from 4 to 11 percent. And it's not just drugs.

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From 1998 to 2008, binge drinking (five or more drinks on one occasion for men, four or more for women within the last month) increased from 35 percent to 47 percent, a one third jump. According to the study, illicit drug use among active members of the military remained constant at 2 percent from 2002 to 2008.

"Alcohol and other drug use in the armed forces remain unacceptably high, constitute a public health crisis, and both are detrimental to force readiness and psychological fitness," the study's authors wrote.

Dennis McCarty, a researcher at Oregon Health & Science University and a member of the committee that worked on this report, says that the escalation of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and increasing frequency and length of deployment have likely lead to the jump in substance abuse. He says the military has to do a better job of offering substance abuse programs for troops.

"The lack of confidentiality of treatment programs is a barrier to accessing care," he says. "Treatment levels are below what we'd expect."

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Enrollment in the armed forces' substance abuse programs have increased over the past few years. In 2010, for example, over 23,000 soldiers enrolled in the Army's substance abuse programs, a nearly 40 percent increase over 2006 numbers. During that same period, the number of sailors and Marines who entered substance abuse programs increased from 7,700 to 10,100, a 31 percent jump.

Military doctors wrote 43 million prescriptions for painkillers in 2009, more than quadruple the number they wrote in 2001. Painkiller abuse is a particularly tough problem for military physicians to solve: Combat-related injuries, strain from carrying heavy gear, and long deployment times often necessitate their use, according to the study. But weaning soldiers off the medication is often difficult.

"They're first treated for an injury, but then they become dependent on the medication," McCarty says.

Charles O'Brien, chair of the committee wrote the report, said that pain killers aren't going away anytime soon, but their use is a tough habit to kick because of the way opioids work in the body.

"Addiction and all kinds of substance abuse is chronic, and the pathology of addiction is like a memory," he says. "And that memory doesn't go away all that quickly," even if the body isn't physically addicted to the painkillers anymore.

Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com