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Drug-Related Emergency Room Visits Dropped 6% in 1996, Reports DAWN Survey


January 1998

Drug-related emergency room visits dropped 6% in 1996, the first time the figure has fallen meaningfully during the 1990s, according to the annual Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) survey. In 1996, there were 487,600 drug-related hospital emergency-department episodes overall, down significantly from 518,500 in 1994 and 517, 800 in 1995 (Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, "Year-End Preliminary Estimates from the 1996 Drug Abuse Warning Network," December 1997; Associated Press, "Emergency Room Drug Cases Dropped 6 Percent Last Year," Washington Post, December 31, 1997, p. A6; Marlene Cimons, "Drug-Related Emergency Room Visits Decrease, U.S. Reports," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), December 31, 1997, p. A5; Marlene Cimons, "Hospital visits due to drugs fell in '96," Philadelphia Inquirer, December 31, 1997, p. A9).

In 1996, there were a total of 85.5 million emergency room visits. Drug-related emergency in 1996 represented 0.6% of those visits.

Drug episodes involving prescription and over-the-counter drugs constituted the most statistically significant change in the 6% decrease. Alcohol used in combination with another drug was the most common emergency room drug-related case in 1996. "Suicide attempt or gesture" was the most commonly reported motive for taking a substance, representing 37% of all drug-related emergency room episodes in 1996.

Between 1994 and 1996, there were no statistically significant changes in total cocaine-related episodes. However, in that period, there had been a 21% increase in cocaine-related cases among those 35 and older. The total of cocaine-related cases was 138,000 in 1995 and 144,200 in 1996. Cocaine-related episodes increased 78% from 1990 to 1994 before stabilizing.

There were no statistically significant changes in heroin-related episodes between 1995 and 1996. But between 1994 and 1996, there was a 20% increase in heroin cases among those 35 and older. Heroin-related episodes had increased steadily since the early 1980s, and between 1990 and 1996, there was a 108% increase in heroin-related cases.

Between 1995 and 1996, there were no changes in marijuana/hashish cases by age, sex or race/ethnicity. However, between 1994 and 1996, marijuana-related episodes had increased 33% among those 12 to 17 years of age; 27% among those 26 to 34; and 41% among those 35 and older. Marijuana/hashish episodes rose from 40,200 in 1994 to 50,000 in 1996, an increase of 25%. Since 1990, marijuana/hashish-related episodes have increased 219%.

Methamphetamine-related episodes dropped 39% from 1994 to 1996. Such episodes had increased 237% from 1990 to 1994.

Health officials attributed the increases among older Americans to their higher vulnerability to age-related health problems and to a greater likelihood that they would seek emergency care.

To obtain a copy of the report, contact SAMHSA's National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information at (800) 729-6686 or visit their website at