Prescription drug abuse now more deadly than heroin, cocaine combined

A new study shows that deaths from prescription drug overdoses have quadrupled during the past decade, suggesting that a stronger response is needed.

Rick Callahan/AP/File
State Rep. Steve Davisson discusses Indiana's new website to combat prescription drug abuse at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis in August.

More people are dying in the United States from prescription drugs than from heroin and cocaine combined, a new study says, signaling that pill abuse is not just the leading cause of drug overdose deaths, but that it also requires more oversight and training by both doctors and state health agencies.

Deaths involving prescription pills have quadrupled between 1999 and 2010, according to a report released Monday by Trust for America’s Health, a nonprofit organization in Washington that studies health policy. About 6.1 million people abuse prescription pills, and overdose deaths have at least doubled in 29 states, where they now exceed vehicle-related deaths. In 10 of those states, rates tripled; in four of them, they quadrupled.

“We’ve been struck how quickly this probably has emerged … it warrants a strong public health response,” says Andrea Gielen, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy in Baltimore, who served as a consultant for the report. “We’re concerned about preventing misuse or overdoses, which are very real and heart-wrenching problems that have been skyrocketing recently.”

Prescription drug overdose rates are highest in the poorest regions of the US: Appalachia and the Southwest. West Virginia has the highest rate, at 28.9 deaths per every 100,000 people – a 605 percent increase since 1999. Following close behind are New Mexico, Kentucky, Nevada, and Oklahoma.

Rates are lowest in the Midwest. North Dakota has the lowest rate of prescription drug overdose deaths, at 3.4 per every 100,000 people.

The most common misused prescription drugs are painkillers (such as OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin), depressants such as sedatives, and stimulants used to treat narcolepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While men ages 25 to 54 are most likely to abuse these drugs, rates among female abusers are accelerating. Since 1999, overdose deaths have increased 400 percent among women compared with 265 percent among men.

Monitoring programs for prescription drugs are in place in every state, but the strategies are often broad, often fail to act in concert with one another, or vary in funding and capability, the report says.

State providers often don’t have access to Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, which are electronic databases used to track prescriptions by patients and can flag misuse by tracking multiple prescriptions by different doctors – a practice also known as “doctor shopping,” says Jeffrey Levy, executive director of Trust for America’s Health.

Moreover, states are not yet fully utilizing PDMPs and vary in requirements for reporting and determining who can access and report data, Mr. Levy adds. Forty-nine states have a PMDP, but only 16 require health-care providers to use it. (Missouri is the only state without a PDMP.)

For the program to work in preventing overdose deaths, he adds, it “needs to be modernized and integrated with public health systems. If we don’t integrate [it], we will lose a huge opportunity.”

Besides expanding access to PDMPs, the report urges training for doctors and others on prescription drug abuse, and for an expansion of private and public insurance programs to cover the full range of substance-abuse treatment.

Levy says that the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs costs the US an estimated $53.4 billion each year in medical and criminal justice costs and lost productivity.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.