Prescriptions Now Biggest Cause of Fatal Drug Overdoses

October 6, 2009
USA TODAY
Liz Szabo

Addiction to prescription painkillers — which kill thousands of Americans a year — has become a largely unrecognized epidemic, experts say. In fact, prescription drugs cause most of the more than 26,000 fatal overdoses each year, says Leonard Paulozzi of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The number of overdose deaths from opioid painkillers — opium-like drugs that include morphine and codeine — more than tripled from 1999 to 2006, to 13,800 deaths that year, according to CDC statistics released Wednesday.

In the past, most overdoses were due to illegal narcotics, such as heroin, with most deaths in big cities. Prescription painkillers have now surpassed heroin and cocaine, however, as the leading cause of fatal overdoses, Paulozzi says. And the rate of fatal overdoses is now about as high in rural areas — 7.8 deaths per 100,000 people — as in cities, where the rate is 7.9 deaths per 100,000 people, according to a paper he published last year in Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety.

“The biggest and fastest-growing part of America’s drug problem is prescription drug abuse,” says Robert DuPont, a former White House drug czar and a former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “The statistics are unmistakable.”

About 120,000 Americans a year go to the emergency room after overdosing on opioid painkillers, says Laxmaiah Manchikanti, chief executive officer and board chairman for the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians. More…

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