The second leading cause of accidental death in the US is drug overdose (JAMA 2007). Prescription painkiller overdose deaths (opioid analgesics like OxyContin, Vicodin and methadone) account for nearly half of the 36,450 total fatal overdoses with 15,000 deaths that have claimed a number of celebrity lives including famous actor Heath Ledger (CDC 2011).
With so much concern over illegal drugs, it seems silly not to focus on a problem that is at least as deadly but far more accepted.
Drug overdose deaths increasing quickly
In 2004 there were 19,838 total accidental overdose deaths, with about 9,000 caused by prescribed drugs, and 8,000 more caused by illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines (Paulozzi, LJ, Budnitz 2006). That signals a near doubling in about 7 years, and when you look at numbers from 1999, we’re talking about triple the accidental drug overdose deaths in just over a decade! Fastest growing cause of death in our country ladies and gentlemen.
SAMHSA Reports that use of prescription pain relievers (opioid analgesics) have increased since 2002 from 360,000 to 754,000 people in 2010. That means that people are twice as likely to use these drugs now, which would be fine if 5% of the users weren’t dying every year. A study I talked about on ABC’s Good Morning America earlier this year (see here) reported that people taking heavy doses are especially likely to die and that this might be at least partially due to additional opioid use over and above the prescribed regimen.Time to get this under control prescribers!!!
This increase in usage opioid analgesics like Oxycontin, Vicodin, and methadone has made them the some of the most deadly drugs in the USA (Paulozzi, LJ, Budnitz 2006). In 1999 to 2004 prescription overdose related to opioid analgesics increased from 2,900 to at least 7,500, this equates to 160% increase in just 5 years (Paulozzi).
A JAMA study conducted between 1999 to 2004 reported that white women showed a relative increase in unintentional drug related deaths of 136.5% followed by young adults aged 15-24 years (113.3%). But the latest report from the CDC suggest that Men and middle aged individuals are most likely to be affected by this growing epidemic. The bottom line is this problem is either moving around or is universal enough affect essentially every major group of Americans. One of the scariest findings from this most recent CDC study may be the conclusion that states are generally unprepared to deal with this growing epidemic.
What can we do about overdose deaths?
First of all, it is seriously time that we had more consistent state and federal computer systems keeping track of prescriptions for heavily controlled drugs in this country. We can keep track of packages moving across state lines with no problem, why is it so damn hard to watch pills that lead to 35,000 deaths? Most states have them in place but they’re not heavily used and there’s nothing at all that looks at cross federal prescription patterns.
Second, we wrote about some harm-reduction methods to reduce overdose deaths, things like intranasal naloxone, safe injection sites, and more. As far as I’m concerned, we need to get off our national moral horse and start acting responsibly when it comes to saving lives. If we have simple solutions that have been shown to reduce deaths while not increasing abuse, I say let’s implement!!! Anything else is simply wrong.
Paulozzi, LJ, Budnitz, DS, Xi, Y. Increasing deaths from opioid analgesics in the United States. Pharmacoepidemiology Drug Safety 2006; 15: 618-627. (originally published in 2006 and recently updated)