National Prescription Painkiller Overdoses at Epidemic Level


According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the death rates caused by overdoses of prescription painkillers has more than tripled in the past decade, surpassing the total number of deaths caused by heroin and cocaine combined.

According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the death rates caused by overdoses of prescription painkillers has more than tripled in the past decade, surpassing the total number of deaths caused by heroin and cocaine combined.

The findings of the analysis, CDC Vital Signs, show that over 40 people die every day from overdoses of prescription drugs, including narcotic pain relievers like hydrocodone (Vicodin), methadone, oxycodone (OxyContin), and oxymorphone (Opana).

Gil Kerlikowske, Director of National Drug Control Policy, reported, “Prescription drug abuse is a silent epidemic that is stealing thousands of lives and tearing apart communities and families across America.”

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in the year 2010, one in every 20 people in the United States at the age of 12 and above reported using prescription painkillers non-medically, resulting in a total of 12 million people in America admitting to abusing and/or misusing prescription drugs. “Almost 5,500 people start to misuse prescription painkillers every day,” said Pamela S. Hyde, the Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. A factor that may be attributed to this increase in the misuse of painkillers is the rise in chronic pain over the past few years, which is notoriously difficult to treat in many sufferers.

Growing sales have also been a factor in the increased number of deaths. The data from the Drug Enforcement Administration showed that sales of drugs to pharmacies and health care providers are greater than ever, and have increased over 300% since the year 1999.

For the CDC Vital Signs analysis, the CDC evaluated data state-by-state on fatal drug overdoses, nonmedical use of prescription painkillers, and sales of prescription painkillers to pharmacies and health care providers.

The CDC found:

  • The state with the highest death toll due to overdosing was New Mexico (27.0 deaths per 100,000 people), while the lowest was Nebraska (5.5 deaths per 100,000 people).
  • The highest use of prescription painkillers in people aged 12 and older was Oklahoma (1 in 12 people), and the lowest was Nebraska (1 in 30 people).
  • Prescription painkiller sales per person were more than three times higher in the highest state (Florida) than in the lowest state (Illinois).
  • States that reported more nonmedical use were more inclined to also report more deaths from drug overdoses. Further, states which exhibited higher sales of drugs per individual tended to have higher death rates from drug overdose.

Additionally, the prescription painkiller death rates of non-Hispanic whites and American Indians/Alaska Natives were three times higher than those of blacks and Hispanic whites. Additionally, the death rate was highest in individuals between the ages of 35 and 54 years old.

Overall, the number of years of potential life lost due to overdoses (830,652 years) before age 65 years is comparable to the years of potential life lost from motor vehicle crashes, and it is significantly higher than the years of potential life lost due to homicide.

As a response to this information, the CDC is releasing a report entitled “Policy Impact: Prescription Painkiller Overdoses,” which will be a part of a series of issue briefs stressing key public health issues and relevant science—based policy actions that can be taken to address them. A previous report was compiled and released in April by the Administration. The report consisted of an all-inclusive action plan to address the national prescription drug abuse epidemic to reduce this public health burden.

The plan is entitled “Epidemic: Responding to America’s Prescription Drug Abuse Crisis, ” and it incorporates support for the expansion of state—based prescription drug monitoring programs, more expedient and environmentally responsible disposal methods to remove unused medications from the home, education for patients and healthcare providers, and support for law enforcement efforts that diminish the prevalence of "pill mills" and doctor shopping.

As of now, 48 states have put into action the state-based monitoring programs designed to decrease diversion and doctor shopping while protecting patient privacy. Further, the Department of Justice has discovered and dismantled a chain of rogue pain clinics operating as “pill mills.”

President Obama has also signed into law the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act, which will permit states and local communities to collect and safely get rid of unwanted prescription drugs. This law will also support the DEA’s continuing efforts on the national scale to gather unneeded or expired prescription drugs; over the past year, over 300 tons of medications have been collected. “Just like other public health epidemics, community-based prevention can be a proven, life-saving and cost-effective key to breaking the trend and restoring health and well-being,” said Hyde.

Even though national policies are being strengthened, states can take several steps in order to prevent overdoses from prescription painkillers, such as beginning or improving prescription drug monitoring programs. This includes implementing electronic databases that track all prescriptions for painkillers in any given state. Increasing access to substance abuse treatment and encouraging professional state licensing boards to take action against inappropriate prescribing can help tackle the problem as well. Finally, passing/enforcing/evaluating pill mill and doctor shopping, along with other state laws, will certainly be a good step in reducing prescription painkiller abuse.

“From day one,” stated Kerlikowske, “we have been laser—focused on this crisis by taking a comprehensive public health and public safety approach. All of us have a role to play. Health care providers and patients should be educated on the risks of prescription painkillers. And parents and grandparents can take time today to properly dispose of any unneeded or expired medications from the home and to talk to their kids about the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs. ”

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