TUESDAY, Nov. 1 (HealthDay News) -- The number of deaths from
prescription drug overdoses has tripled in a decade, hitting a peak
of 36,000 fatalities in 2008, U.S. health officials reported
"The unfortunate and shocking news is that we are in the midst of an epidemic of prescription overdose in this country," Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a midday news conference.
Since 1999, there have been significant increases not only in
overdose death rates, but in the sales of prescription painkillers
such as OxyContin, Vicodin and methadone, and admission for
treatment of abuse of these drugs, the CDC said.
"Now there are more peopled killed by prescription narcotics than from heroin and cocaine combined," Frieden said.
In 1999 there were 4,000 deaths related to painkillers, but by
2008 that number had risen by a factor of three, to 15,000
By 2010, 12 million Americans said they were using opioid pain
relievers without a prescription. In 2009, almost 500,000 emergency
room visits were for abuse of these painkillers. This costs health
insurance companies as much as $72 billion a year in direct costs,
the CDC said in a report titled
Vital Sign Report: Prescription Painkiller Overdoses in the
According to the report, more men than women die of overdoses
from prescription painkillers, and the overdose rates are highest
among middle-aged adults. Also, people living in rural areas are
almost twice as likely to overdose on opioid pain relievers than
city residents, the report said.
Among ethnic groups the highest overdose rates are among whites
and American Indian or Alaska Natives. An estimated one in 10
American Indians and Alaska Natives abuses opioid pain relievers,
compared with one in 20 whites and one in 30 blacks, according to
Part of the impetus for the epidemic is an increase in the
number of prescriptions being written, Frieden said. "Enough
narcotics are prescribed to give every adult in America one month
of prescription narcotics," he said. "This stems from a few
irresponsible doctors. The burden of dangerous drugs is being
created more by a few irresponsible doctors than by drug pushers on
Much of the responsibility for stopping the epidemic rests with
the states and their regulation of prescription drugs, Frieden
said. "State policy can make a huge difference in allowing or
controlling this epidemic to proceed," he said.
Part of the problem: More of these drugs are available. Between
1999 and 2010, the amount of opioid painkillers sold to pharmacies,
hospitals and doctors increased fourfold, the report said.
In addition, states are reporting problems with so-called "pill
mills," where doctors prescribe large quantities of painkillers to
people who don't need them. People are also getting prescriptions
by going from doctor to doctor -- called "doctor shopping."
The epidemic also varies state to state. In 2008 and 2009, abuse
of prescription painkillers ranged from one in 12 people in
Oklahoma to one in 30 in Nebraska, the CDC found.
"Prescription painkillers are meant to help people in pain," Frieden said. "They are, however, highly addictive. Palliation of pain is a right and people with chronic pain, such as people with cancer whose pain cannot be relieved otherwise, can benefit enormously from effective pain relief," he said.
There are a number of steps that can be taken to combat the
problem, Frieden said. First, states need to monitor who is
prescribing these drugs and to whom, to identify doctors and
patients who are getting prescriptions for non-medical use.
States also need to take action against abusers, Frieden said.
One way is to limit patients with known drug problems to a single
doctor for prescribing and a single pharmacy for filling
States also need to shut down pill mills and doctor shopping,
Frieden said. Doctors can have their license revoked for
prescribing abuses, he said.
Dr. Jeffrey N. Bernstein, medical director of the Florida Poison
Information Center at the University of Miami, said that "poisoning
death has now become the number-one cause of unintentional death,
surpassing car accidents. A large percentage of those deaths
involve opioid pain meds."
One reason these drugs have become so popular is that they're
relatively easy to get, Bernstein said. "It's a lot easier to go to
a doctor and get a prescription, or to buy somebody's prescription,
or to steal it out of somebody's medicine cabinet than it is to go
to one of the bad neighborhoods and take a chance with a dealer
where you are somewhat risking your own life," he said.
For more on prescription drug abuse, visit the
U.S. National Library of Medicine.
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