Drug Abuse in the U.S. Now Deadlier than Car Accidents
Prescription drugs are prescribed to manage pain, to alleviate illness, and to improve the quality, and perhaps even the quantity, of life. But according to a recent study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a patient’s over-use of some prescription drugs may be having the opposite effect.
A preliminary report estimated that 37,485 people died from long-term drug abuse in 2009. That’s 1,201 more fatalities than was recorded from car accidents, and the first time in 30 years of recording drug-related deaths that drug abuse fatalities have surpassed car accident fatalities.
In a bittersweet comparison, the number of traffic fatalities has decreased by more than a third in the last 40 years, while record-breaking numbers of people are ending up in emergency rooms from accidental overdoses of prescription drugs. Better motor vehicle safety features such as improved seat belts, air bags and motion sensors are protecting drivers and saving lives. Stricter laws in seat belt use and speed limits have also been attributed to lower motor vehicle fatalities.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, illegal substance abuse is increasing. For years, campaigns have educated the public on the dangers of street narcotics; but, surprisingly, last year more people were sent to emergency rooms for overdose on legal substances than illegal. More people died from the misuse of prescription drugs than from the abuse of heroin and cocaine combined.
Dr. Peter Delany, director of SAMHSA’s Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, says that the rise in prescription drug-related deaths is due in large part to people not realizing that they have become addicted to their prescription. Patients know that street narcotics are dangerous, but assume that anything prescribed by their doctor is safe, certainly not life-threatening. This relaxed attitude blinds the patient from seeing their addiction to the prescription drug.
Delany also states that people can build a tolerance to prescription drugs over time, even if they take them as prescribed. Deaths by prescription drug abuse span across all ages, but many of the deaths include children who abused their parents’ prescription drugs.
Hundreds of thousands of people are visiting emergency rooms each year because of prescription painkiller abuse. In the last 10 years, the number of deaths from the abuse of Valium, Xanax and OxyContin has doubled. The painkiller Vicodin is the runner-up to marijuana as the most abused drug by high school students, as reported by a 2010 University of Michigan study.
According to SAMHSA, more than 2 million Americans abuse opioids each year. Because pain is unique to each individual, doctors can work with patients to help them properly manage their pain without abusing prescription drugs.
The cure for prescription drug abuse is cooperation, education and communication between physicians, drug manufacturers and patients. Each player must work to ensure that patients understand the proper uses of their medication. In April 2011, the White House planned drug monitoring programs, education programs and take-back programs that will hopefully be set into motion and curtail this abuse. Until this formal plan is enacted, physicians need to monitor patients carefully and help them find just the right balance of medication to help improve their quality of life.