Barbiturates: Usage trends

Last modified: Thursday, 25. December 2008 - 6:09 am


Passage of the federal Controlled Substances Act in 1970 restricted access to barbiturates. That action led to an eventual decline in the use and abuse of one of the most widely prescribed drugs of the twentieth century.

Scope and severity

In 1977, pharmacists filled approximately 7.9 million prescriptions for Luminal (phenobarbital), according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). NIDA estimated that approximately 1.7 million Nembutal prescriptions were filled, along with an estimated 1.5 million Seconal prescriptions, and 375,000 Amytal prescriptions.

NIDA research included estimates of deaths linked to use of a barbiturate. The federal agency estimated that 250 deaths were related to secobarbital, the same number for pentobarbital, 110 phenobarbital fatalities, and 30 deaths were connected to amobarbital.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency said that barbiturates accounted for 20% of depressant prescriptions. Barbiturate use had declined so much that researchers no longer compiled separate statistics about the drug. Instead, barbiturates were placed in the sedative category that included tranquilizers.

Age, ethnic, and gender trends

During the 1950s, barbiturates were popular with the middle and upper classes. By the 1960s, barbiturate users spanned the generations from youths to older adults. However, recent surveys of illicit drug abuse illustrated the sharp decline in barbiturate abuse. In the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse for 2000, sedatives were placed in a category of psychotherapeutic drugs. This category included pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and pain relievers.

The survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) focused on the 14 million Americans who were current illicit drug users. Current use was defined as having used the drug the month before the survey. Those surveyed were age 12 and older.

Of that total, 1.8% of men and 1.7% of women had taken a psychotherapeutic drug for nonmedical reasons during the month before the survey. Of youths between the ages of 12 and 17, 7.7% of girls and 3.3% of girls were “likely” to use a illicit psychotherapeutic drugs.

Typically, women are more likely then men to receive barbiturate prescriptions because they are more likely to seek help for anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Barbiturates are also widely prescribed to older adults. Elderly persons use these drugs as sedatives, and again women receive the majority of the prescriptions.


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