Timeline of Celebrity Prescription Drug Deaths
Throughout the decades, mainstream media have reported on celebrity deaths brought on by drug overdoses. Some of these were attributed to illegal substances such as heroin and cocaine, but in many cases the culprit has been the legal substances: prescription drugs taken under the supervision of a doctor that celebrities over the years had either reacted badly to, abused or misused. Some of these deaths are clearly sudden and unfortunate accidents, while others are the tragic ends to long battles with drug addiction.
Marilyn Monroe (1962): A famous actress, singer and model during the late ’50s and early ’60s, Marilyn Monroe struggled throughout her career with prescription drug addiction and abuse. In August 1962, she was found dead in her home from a reported “acute barbiturate poisoning.” Barbiturates are a class of drug used to treat insomnia. Their powerful sedative properties have caused many fatal overdoses over the years, especially when combined with alcohol and other depressants. While numerous conspiracy theories surround Monroe’s death, her use of barbiturates is well documented.
Elvis Presley (1977): No timeline of celebrity deaths would be complete without mention of Elvis Presley. An icon and a superstar, this musical artist’s tragic death was brought about by a long history of drug abuse. Like Marilyn Monroe, his death was caused by an overdose of barbiturates. During the years that led up to his passing, Elvis struggled with drug addiction, particularly with Demerol. His years of drug abuse had taken a huge toll on his body as well, causing him to suffer from an enlarged colon, liver damage and high blood pressure.
Chris Farley (1997): A famous comedian and actor, Chris Farley was perhaps most well known for his involvement with “Saturday Night Live.” He was found dead in his apartment in February 1997 from an accidental overdose. Toxicology tests detected cocaine and morphine in his system as well as Prozac. The narrowing of his coronary arteries as the main cause of death points to damage caused by opiates—in this case, morphine.
Anna Nicole Smith (2007): Reality TV show star and model Anna Nicole Smith died from an accidental prescription overdose in February 2007. A struggling addict for several years, she was found with a number of therapeutic drugs in her system, including chloral hydrate (a sleep aid), Valium and Ativan (two widely popular anti-anxiety drugs).
Heath Ledger (2008): Well known for his roles in “The Dark Knight,” and “Brokeback Mountain,” Heath Ledger was an Oscar-nominated actor from Australia. A deadly cocktail of six prescription drugs, including anti-anxiety drugs, sleeping pills and hydrocodone caused his death. Ledger’s parents released a statement soon after his death saying, “Heath’s accidental death serves as a caution to the hidden dangers of combining prescription medication, even at low dosage.”
Michael Jackson (2009): A pop icon and superstar for the majority of his life, Michael Jackson was a favorite among the tabloids, and his sudden passing in June 2009 was no different. His death was widely publicized and was the center of controversy for several years. Michael Jackson was on numerous prescription drugs, including propofol (an anesthetic), alprazolam and sertraline, among others. While his death was first reported as an accidental drug overdose, it is now reported as a homicide after his personal physician was convicted of manslaughter.
Brittany Murphy (2009): The actress who found fame during her role in the movie “Clueless” died unexpectedly in December 2009. Her cause of death was ruled “accidental,” but seemed to occur from a combination of factors, including pneumonia, anemia and drug toxicity. Though the exact drugs found in her system were never disclosed, the coroner did report that none of the drugs were illegal.
Whitney Houston (2012): A famous and influential singer, Whitney Houston’s death was a shock and a cause of heartbreak for many. While initial reports pointed to drowning as the cause of death, a combination of prescription drugs and alcohol are now widely believed to be the cause.
Of course, some of these deaths are still under investigation, and in many cases, there’s still quite a bit of controversy surrounding the role that prescription drugs played. Whether an unexpected accident or the result of long-term abuse, these celebrity fatalities provide a sort of cautionary tale.
The world of the celebrity is certainly an extraordinary one. Fame, money and the entertainment industry itself has a way of bringing exposure to a wide range of substances, from the benign late-night coffee to the much more sinister heroin binges. With all this exposure, combined with the massive pressures of an actor or musician’s schedule, it’s easy to rationalize a celebrity’s dependence on drugs, both the illegal and legal ones. But with a genuine medical need or not, prescribed drugs are dangerous substances that must be treated with great caution, even if they were signed off on by a physician.