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Military should better address growing alcohol and drug abuse, report says

Binge drinking and prescription drug abuse among the nation's military has grown and top military leadership should address this "crisis," according to a new report released Monday.

The study, by the national Institute of Medicine, called its findings of alcohol and other drug use in the armed forces "a public health crisis" and characterized the level of use as "unacceptably high." The institute is part of the National Academy of Sciences.

The report found that 47 percent of active duty service members engaged in binge drinking in 2008, up from 35 percent a decade earlier. Heavy drinking was reported in 20 percent of active duty service members in 2008, up from 15 percent in 1998.

The number of prescriptions military physicians wrote for pain medication quadrupled since 2001 to almost 3.8 million prescriptions in 2009, according to the report. However, some attribute this growth to combat-related injuries and strains from carrying heavy gear.

Current approaches to preventing and treating substance abuse are outdated, the report said.

"We commend the steps that the Department of Defense and individual service branches have recently taken to improve prevention and care for substance use disorders, but the armed forces face many ongoing challenges," said University of Pennsylvania professor Charles P. O'Brien, who chaired the committee that wrote the report.

"Better care for service members and their families is hampered by inadequate prevention strategies, staffing shortages, lack of coverage for services that are proved to work and stigma associated with these disorders."

Related: US Army investigated soldiers over suspected drug abuse in Afghanistan, data show

The Institute of Medicine wants military leadership to acknowledge these facts and to attack "substance use problems before they begin by limiting access to certain medications and alcohol." Among the committee's recommendations are to curb easy access to inexpensive alcohol on military bases, reduce the number of outlets that sell alcohol, restrict their hours of operation and reduce the type and amount of alcohol purchased.

Barriers for military members to get help for substance abuse is also an issue, the committee wrote. Fear of negative consequences, gaps in insurance coverage, lack of confidential services and stigma are among the obstacles, the report listed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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