I often blog about drugs used as poisons, and I guess that’s why someone asked me the other day, “Which drugs are the deadliest in America?”
The question required clarification before answering it. Did he mean the fastest killers, or the most painful drug poisons, or did he want to know something else?
I realized that this person wanted to know hard facts. I could speculate that the answer was illegal street drugs, but I needed to research the subject before making any statements that could not be backed up with published data. What I discovered surprised even me.
Statistics indicate that overdose deaths from prescription painkillers are far greater than any other category of drug deaths—so much so that the statistics for deaths from prescription painkillers exceed those of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine combined.
A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) found that nearly 40 Americans die each day (almost 15,000/yr) from overdoses of prescription painkillers (drugs such as Vicodin and OxyContin).
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC stated, “We are in the midst of an epidemic of prescription narcotic overdoses.” And it seems that the problem has gotten worse over the years. There has been a three-fold increase in deaths from narcotic painkillers over the past decade alone.
In April of this year, Popular Science published an article on that very subject. Accompanying it was an interesting graph depicting the number of deaths per 100,000 people from various drugs (including prescription drugs, street drugs and alcohol). The top two spots for the highest number of deaths per 100,000 were narcotic painkillers and psycho-pharmaceuticals, with heroin and cocaine being farther down the list.
Interestingly, marijuana was not even on the list. The US Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) indicates that there have been no credible deaths reported from cannabis alone, although we can speculate that there are a number of auto collision deaths that might result from cannabis abuse.
Similarly, the chart represents all deaths in the CDC database under the categories accidental poisoning, intentional self-poisoning, assault by drugs and poisoning with undetermined intent, but does not account for deaths related to drug interactions involving combinations of drugs—often deadly combinations, such as the Houston Cocktail of Vicodin, Flexeril and Xanax. I’ll save that discussion of killer drug combinations for another blog.
What the analysis does show is a doubling of deaths from narcotic overdoses between 1999 and 2010, and approximately 70% of those deaths are listed as “unintentional”—translate that as “accidental overdoses”.
Solutions to this growing problem are not simple. A greater reliance on medication use in modern society has given the average person a complacent attitude regarding prescription drugs, and the “immediate fix” of the modern psyche allows for greater use of prescription pain relievers as alternatives to more time-consuming or more costly measures (such as physical therapy, exercise and invasive medical procedures).
Prescription pain relief comes with its own detrimental cost. As we continue the fight against illegal street drugs, we must also inform the public about the improper use of legal prescription drugs, the additive nature of many pain relievers and the diversion of prescription narcotics for recreational drug use.
Listen to your healthcare professional as he/she prescribes or dispenses these medications and read the accompanying literature provided when the drug is purchased. A little education can go a long way toward keeping you from becoming yet another statistic on a chart.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!
We know a young man who had a relatively minor but very painful accident in the workplace. Apparently the pain got very intense and the prescribed pain meds were not kicking in quickly. He died, alone, of an accidental overdose. In a hospital, pain meds can be limited either by the need for a nurse to administer the pill or the new controls on an intravenous drip that give the patient the ability to request more but limits the total amount given over time. People in pain are not necessarily rational and possibly not able to limit their use of pain meds. “Just one more can’t hurt me and might cut the pain.” If you are caring for a loved one in pain at home, you need to be the one to monitor and limit drug use, even it you get yelled at. This might mean physically moving the meds out of the patient’s reach.
Thanks for the article.
You’re absolutely right about monitoring patients on chronic pain meds, Walt. So many accidental overdoses occur at home and when patients are not properly monitored. Thanks for sharing your insight.
Another good article, and a topic that needs more attention. My youngest son got addicted to Oxy many years ago, and it started a vicious cycle of drug abuse/addiction that lasted many more years resulting in his near death. Thankfully he has been clean for 4 years and runs a rehab center, but the problem is huge! And a lot of the blame can be placed on our healthcare professionals. They dispense pain meds as if they were candy. There is an entire network of drug dealers who make a living by having “mules” run from doctor to doctor getting prescriptions to sell on the street, and there seems to be no end to the physicians willing to write the prescs. I think they busted >100 docs in houston last year. The pharma companies push the meds on the docs with their sales reps, and the docs push the meds because it’s easier than listening to patients whine. It’s similar to the Mexican drug problem. We complain about it all, but look at the facts: we (the US) create the demand for the drugs, and we supply the guns to the Mexican dealers, and then we put all the blame on them. Action has to be taken on all sides to get something done.
I am sorry for the pain you endured with your son and I admire the fact that he is clean and now helping others on that difficult journey. You provide an excellent analogy between some unscrupulous physicians and drug cartels. The effects of their actions are often the same. We should embrace the many responsible physicians who go the second mile to help alleviate chronic pain and yet walk the walk with their patients to act responsibly. Thanks for your comments.
Now that’s an eye-popper, James. Thanks so much for the education.
It’s surprising that the deaths came from LEGAL drugs being misused.
Wow! But I am not surprised. Vastly more people take perscription drugs than take illegal drugs. No wonder there are more deaths. Plus, unsupervised at home, people can combine anything they wish, however ill advised.
So true, Mary. And I fear as our population grows older, this epidemic may only be in its infancy.
Thanks for finally talking about >The Deadliest Drugs in the United States |
Prescription For Murder <Loved it!