Which Funders Are Backing the Fight Against Prescription Drug Abuse?

Remember back in the day when marijuana had the dubious reputation of being a “gateway drug?” Back then, weed was known as the drug that would likely lead users trying “harder” illegal substances. The marijuana-as-a-gateway-drug debate continues to rage on, even as states like Alaska and Colorado have legalized recreational marijuana use and more than 20 states have legalized medical marijuana.

While there is plenty of research to support the gateway drug theory and plenty that debunks it as a myth, another, and perhaps more pervasive, drug-related epidemic is occurring in the United States—prescription drug misuse and abuse.

In 2011, 52 million people who were over the age of 12 at the time had used prescription drugs non-medically and abuse is most prevalent among young people ages 18 to 25. While prescription drug abuse is a worldwide epidemic, the United States is the biggest user, consuming some 75 percent of the world’s prescription drugs. Regardless of legislation like the Combating Prescription Drug Abuse Act and tighter regulations for prescribers and patients, the United States has a growing prescription drug problem—and it’s a public health matter that should really draw more attention than it does.

A major funder paying attention, here, is the Cardinal Health Foundation which is backing prevention efforts in communities across the United States both large and small to benefit every age group through its Generation Rx program.

The foundation is the philanthropic arm of the health care products and services company, Cardinal Health. It’s a relatively large corporate funder with around $50 to $60 million in assets, awarding $7 to $8 million in grants each year. Since 2009 and working in conjunction with The Ohio State University College of Pharmacy, the foundation has awarded over $5.3 million in grants out of its Generation Rx program.

Last year, Cardinal Health awarded grants—mostly small—to around 25 organizations totaling over $560,000. Grants were awarded to groups battling prescription drug misuse and abuse in their local communities, with a strong focus on medication disposal programs.

Focusing on medication disposal may leave some scratching their heads wondering what the disposition of meds have to do with prescription drug abuse or whether doing so will make a dent in the epidemic. Though it remains to be seen as to how it help, it’s a strong step in the right direction toward, at the very least, preventing others from getting their hands on the drugs in the first place. It’s clear that we live in a world that necessitates locking up our prescriptions, but I would hazard a guess that not many people do so.

Overall, funders that are backing efforts to prevent prescription drug abuse number in the very few. Even though this is an incredibly complicated landscape, it’s surprising that so few like-minded funders are interested in joining the fight. There is some movement here, but it’s mainly coming mainly from pharmacy companies rather than pharmaceutical manufacturers. Which is an important distinction.

Earlier this year for example, Walgreens introduced two major programs to fight drug abuse. The first is the installation of medication disposal kiosks in over 500 Walgreens stores across 39 states and Washington D.C. The second, is making naloxone, better known by its brand name Narcan, available without a prescription in 35 states. Naloxone is commonly used to treat narcotic and opioid overdoses in emergencies.

Walgreens does have a charitable arm that backs projects related to access to health, community outreach, pharmacy education, and emergency and disaster relief. The company’s medication disposal kiosk and naloxone programs to combat drug abuse is the first of its kind.

CVS Health has also gotten in the game, having previously launched a program to identify doctors and drug prescribers who “have exhibited extreme patters of prescribing ‘high risk drugs.’” The study resulted in the suspension of controlled substance prescriptions by 36 providers throughout all CVS Pharmacy stores and mail service pharmacies. CVS Health is also working with federal and state lawmakers to help curb prescription drug abuse.

Like Walgreens, CVS also has a charitable arm, which made waves in 2014 when it announced that it would stop selling cigarettes. Combating tobacco use remains a big deal at the foundation. In 2015, it dedicated $5 million to the fight and later pledged $50 million to Be the First, an anti-smoking campaign targeted at young people.

So does Walgreens and CVS Health’s seemingly growing interests in battling prescription drug abuse indicate that Cardinal Health may have a few more powerful allies in this new war on drugs? Perhaps. We’ll be keeping a close watch here and will be interested to see what funders, if any, will join the fight. 

RelatedThe Surprising Newcomer to the Flagging Fight Against Tobacco Use