Americans overdosing on prescription pain killers

According to figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 40 Americans die from prescription painkiller abuse each day. Overdoses of opioid prescription drugs now kill more people in the U.S. than do overdoses from heroin and cocaine combined the report says. Twelve million Americans say they abused prescription drugs in the last year.

Prescription drug abuse has tripled since 1999. Rogue doctors are a big part of the problem, according to CDC Director Thomas Frieden. Indeed, a California study found that 3% of doctors wrote 62% of painkiller prescriptions. Frieden said, “This stems from a few irresponsible doctors. The problem is more from them than from drug pushers on street corners.”

As a result, one in 20 U.S. adults admits to having abused prescription narcotics. The drugs most abused, according to the CDC, are “drugs such as Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone), Opana (oxymorphone), and methadone.”

The figures add that in 2010, pharmacies sold enough of these opiate-based prescription drugs to give everyone in the U.S. a typical 5-milligram dose of hydrocodone every four hours for one month. “Right now the system is awash in these dangerous drugs that get people hooked and keep them hooked… Essentially these are narcotics: dangerous drugs prescribed by doctors,” Frieden said.

Abuse is more common in men than in women; non-Hispanic whites more than in other races or ethnicities; in rural more than in urban neighborhoods; and in middle-aged more than younger or older adults. States with poorer prescription-control laws tend to have more deaths from prescription drug abuse. Not surprisingly, states with the most painkiller sales per person have the most deaths. And no state sold prescription painkillers at a higher rate than Florida.

“It's something that we should have dealt with years ago,” said state Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who has led legislative efforts to curb prescription drug abuse. “We are starting to very slowly getting a handle on this crisis.” In Florida, Fasano noted, it's still too difficult to suspend the license of a doctor prescribing painkillers excessively.

Along with the deaths and the emotional toll of addiction, prescription drug abuse is costing the nation as much as $73 billion annually, from emergency room admissions to the price of the pills themselves.

Frieden suggested specific actions. He said States should monitor who is prescribing drugs and for whom and should take measures to keep people from shopping for doctors who will more freely prescribe painkillers. Standard painkiller prescriptions should be for three days and narcotics should be the last resort for pain control.

“We are in an epidemic of prescription drug overdose,” Frieden said. “This epidemic can be stopped. We are optimistic that when states get serious, they can shut pill mills, stop inappropriate prescriptions, and halt this epidemic.”

Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder visited Tampa to announce the arrests of nine doctors and two pharmacists on charges of drug conspiracy charges. But it has stopped short of directing federal agencies to force drug manufacturers to simply produce less.

R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy added that the White House has set a goal of reducing prescription drug abuse by 15% by 2015. “America’s prescription drug abuse epidemic is not a problem that’s going to be solved overnight, but at the same time, we’re not powerless,” said Kerlikowske, who urged parents to get rid of unneeded or expired painkillers so they aren’t misused.

But he added that this progress would not come at the expense of people who truly need prescription painkillers. “We don't want to turn the clock back to see people who need these medications not get them,” he said.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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