Public health experts are warning that an epidemic of pharmaceutical drug injuries has broken out nationwide, likely fueled by the ever-growing number of prescriptions written for the relief of pain and anxiety. According to preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of drug deaths exceeded the number of traffic fatalities in the U.S. for the first time in 2009, becoming the leading cause of death in the U.S.
At least 37,485 people died from prescription drug injuries in 2009 — 1201 more than the number of people killed in traffic accidents during the same year and twice as many as the number of people killed by heroine and cocaine combined.
OxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax, Soma, Fentanyl, and other potent prescription narcotics are highly addictive and often lethal when mixed with alcohol or other drugs. Even just one overdose of a pharmaceutical drug can be a fatal error.
“In some ways, prescription drugs are more dangerous than illicit ones because users don’t have their guard up, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Opferman, head task force on prescription drug-related crime, told the Los Angeles Times. “People feel they are safer with prescription drugs because you get them from a pharmacy and they are prescribed by a doctor. Younger people believe they are safer because they see their parents taking them. It doesn’t have the same stigma as using street narcotics,” Sgt. Opferman told the LA Times.
The Los Angeles Times report includes a number of real-life scenarios that describe how the prescription drug problem is getting out of hand, from parties in which kids throw a number of prescription drugs in a bowl and take them not knowing what effects they will have, to middle-aged adults who become addicted to the painkillers they take for their “bum knees and strained backs,” to a forgetful grandmother who accidentally double-dosed on painkillers and died.
An analysis of CDC data conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that the number of teens and young adults killed by prescription drugs doubled between 2000 and 2008. For people between the ages of 50 to 69, the fatality rate more than tripled. “In terms of sheer numbers, the death toll is highest among people in their 40s,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
It’s no coincidence either that the most commonly prescribed drug in the U.S., hydrocodone (better known as Vicodin) is also the most widely abused prescription drug. The highly addictive drug is more prescribed than every type of cholesterol drug and antibiotic. One U.S. Drug Enforcement Agent quoted in the Los Angeles Times described the American appetite for Vicodin as “insatiable.”