The number of prescription drug-induced deaths rose for the 11th straight year, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analysis. Most of the drug deaths were accidents involving potent painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin.
“This is a big problem that has gotten much worse quickly,” said CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden. Prescription drug deaths continue to rise despite efforts to raise awareness of the risks among doctors and patients.
The CDC reported a total of 38,329 drug-overdose fatalities nationwide in 2010. Nearly 60 percent of those deaths involved medicines, most of them prescription drugs. In 2009, the CDC found that the number of prescription drug deaths eclipsed the number of deaths caused by illicit narcotics for the first time ever. Overdose and abuse of legal narcotics is now the leading cause of death in the U.S.
At least 37,485 people died from prescription drug injuries in 2009 — 1,201 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 heroin and cocaine combined.
The CDC report, published in Tuesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association, reaffirms OxyContin and Vicodin as the biggest culprits, causing 3 out of 4 deaths by medication overdose.
Dr. Frieden said that many doctors and patients don’t realize just how potent and addictive those drugs are, and unfortunately they’re too often prescribed for problems like headaches and back pain when they should be dispensed much more judiciously for cancer patients or others with inconsolable, systemic pain.
“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,” he added.
A number of real-life scenarios illustrate how the prescription drug problem is getting out of hand. According to one Los Angeles Times report, America’s prescription drug problem is manifest in parties in which kids throw a number of prescription drugs in a bowl and take them not knowing what effects they will have, middle-aged adults who become addicted to the painkillers they take for their “bum knees and strained backs,” and a forgetful grandmother who accidentally double-dosed on painkillers and died.