Prescription Painkiller Overdoses Rise in US

The death toll from overdoses of prescription painkillers in the US has more than tripled in the past decade, according to an analysis in the CDC Vital Signs report released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This new finding shows that more than 40 people die every day from overdoses involving narcotic pain relievers like hydrocodone (Vicodin), methadone, oxycodone (OxyContin), and oxymorphone (Opana).

“Overdoses involving prescription painkillers are at epidemic levels and now kill more Americans than heroin and cocaine combined,” Thomas Frieden, MD, MPH, CDC director, stated in a press release. “States, health insurers, health care providers and individuals have critical roles to play in the national effort to stop this epidemic of overdoses while we protect patients who need prescriptions to control pain.”

The increased use of prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons, along with growing sales, has contributed to the large number of overdoses and deaths. In 2010, 1 in every 20 people in the U.S. aged 12 and older — a total of 12 million people — reported using prescription painkillers nonmedically, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Data from the Drug Enforcement Administration, suggests that sales of these drugs to pharmacies and health care providers have increased by more than 300% since 1999.

Unauthorized use of prescription painkillers costs health insurers up to $72.5 billion annually in direct health care costs.

“From day one, we have been laser-focused on this crisis by taking a comprehensive public health and public safety approach,” Gil Kerlikowske, director, National Drug Control Policy, stated in a press release. “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. ”

The prescription painkiller death rates among non-Hispanic whites and American Indians/Alaska Natives were three times those of blacks and Hispanic whites. In addition, the death rate was highest among those aged 35 to 54 years of age. Overdose resulted in 830,652 years of potential life lost before age 65 years, a number comparable to the years of potential life lost from motor vehicle crashes and much higher than the years of potential life lost due to homicide.

The CDC reviewed state data on fatal drug overdoses, nonmedical use of prescription painkillers and sales of prescription painkillers to pharmacies and health care providers. The study found:

  • State death rates from overdoses (from 2008 data) ranged from a high of 27.0 deaths per 100,000 people in New Mexico to a low of 5.5 deaths per 100,000 people in Nebraska;
  • Nonmedical use of prescription painkillers ranged from a high of 1 in 12 people aged 12 and older in Oklahoma to a low of 1 in 30 in Nebraska. States with more nonmedical use tend to have more deaths from drug overdoses;
  • Prescription painkiller sales per person were more than three times higher in the highest state, Florida, than in the lowest state, Illinois. States with higher sales per person tend to have higher death rates from drug overdoses.

Already, 48 states have implemented state-based monitoring programs designed to reduce diversion and doctor shopping while protecting patient privacy. As well, the Department of Justice has conducted a series of takedowns of rogue pain clinics, or “pill mills.” President Barack Obama has also signed into law the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act, which will allow states and local communities to collect and safely dispose of unwanted prescription drugs and support DEA’s ongoing national efforts to collect unneeded or expired prescription drugs.

Unauthorized use of prescription painkillers costs health insurers up to $72.5 billion annually in direct health care costs.

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