Deaths from Prescription Drug Abuse Rising

Deaths from Prescription Drug Abuse Rising

Unintentional deaths involving prescription opioids like Vicodin and OxyContin have increased 114 percent from 2001 to 2005, and treatment admissions have increased 74 percent in a similar four-year period, according to a report released by the National Drug Intelligence Center and the Drug Enforcement Agency. These findings show that abuse of prescription drugs is a serious threat to public health and safety.

Non-medical use of prescription drugs (pain relievers, stimulants, tranquilizers, and sedatives) is most prevalent among those aged 18 to 25, and pain relievers are the most widely abused. Approximately six percent of this age group reported prescription drug abuse in the past month from 2003-2007. It is estimated that diversion and abuse of controlled prescription drugs cost public and private medical insurers $72.5 billion a year.

The study found that more than 8,500 deaths nationwide involved prescription pain relievers in 2005, the latest year for which data are available—this is an increase of 114 percent since 2001. Nearly one-third of individuals who began abusing drugs in the past year reported that their first drug was a prescription drug; 19 percent said their first drug was a prescription opioid. This shows that one in five new drug users are initiating drug use with strong narcotics like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone.

Gil Kerliowske, the director of National Drug Control Policy, released the report at a gathering of more than 300 law enforcement officials to address methamphetamine and illicit pharmaceutical production. “Diversion and abuse of prescription drugs are a threat to our public health and safety—similar to the threat posed by illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine,” he said.

Kerlikowske also said that in 2006, drug-related deaths exceeded firearm-related deaths and ranked second to motor vehicle accidents as a cause of accidental death. “Law enforcement and healthcare communities must work together to help address prescription drug abuse, addiction, and the public safety consequences of diversion,” he said.

DEA Acting Administrator Michele M. Leonhart said, “Today’s report validates the disturbing trend of increasing prescription drug abuse within the United States…When abused, not only are these drugs dangerous in their own right, they often lead to the use of harder drugs, with life-altering consequences. We in law enforcement are committed to being part of a comprehensive solution…to defeat those who push diverted pharmaceuticals into the hands of those who abuse them.”

Despite strict regulations for dispensing them, prescription drugs are often acquired illegally, mostly through friends and family or by getting multiple prescriptions from different doctors, known as “doctor shopping.” Other ways to acquire the drugs include buying them from illicit Internet pharmacies, writing fraudulent prescriptions, and buying them illegally on the street.

Source: Office of National Drug Control Policy, Deaths from Prescription Drug Abuse Skyrockets, May 20, 2009

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