Prescription-overdose Deaths Surpass Car-accident Deaths

SEPTEMBER 01, 2007
Cmdr John Burke

Officials in Utah recently reported that, in 2006, the deaths attributable to prescription-drug abuse surpassed those deaths that resulted from auto accidents in the state during the same time period. In this time period, 476 drug-related deaths occurred, with 307 of those involving prescription drugs. During this same time, 274 people lost their lives due to traffic accidents. Utah is putting together a task force to look at the problem and hopefully find solutions for its reduction.

Not surprisingly, oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, morphine, and fentanyl were the most commonly found substances related to the prescription-drugabuse deaths in Utah. Also not surprising is the fact that the deaths were more common when multiple substances were mixed, making it more difficult to determine which particular pharmaceutical substance contributed most to the death.

This kind of revelation actually is not new and not surprising, as prescriptiondrug abuse is either rising or just getting the kind of attention it has deserved for the past few decades, or both. Some states have reported that the number of overdose deaths relating to prescription drugs equals more than heroin and cocaine overdose deaths combined. This fact also is a staggering thought, except when you see the results of surveys and other studies that strongly indicate that prescription-drug abuse ranks second only to marijuana abuse, and cocaine abuse is less than half that of the pharmaceuticals.

I applaud officials in Utah for trying to do something about their prescriptiondrug problem, instead of burying their heads in the sand, as has been the case with this issue for many years in the United States. Individual states need to look at their statistics and develop a plan to reduce prescription-drug abuse. This plan may include seriously considering a prescription-monitoring program, examining current prescription-drug criminal statutes, allowing law enforcement more resources to fight these crimes, and encouraging health professionals, law enforcement, and regulators to work this problem out together.

States also should consider 2 other components?rehabilitation and education/prevention. Without these 2 components, attacking the prescription-drug-abuse problem will only become a continual revolving door and very little will be accomplished. The education component applies to everyone?health professionals, law enforcement, everyday citizens, addicts, and the people who consume the most of these drugs, by far? the legitimate patients.

We seem to be spending far too much time blaming each other on this issue, pointing the proverbial finger at the ?other side,? whoever that may be. The police blame the physicians for writing too much, the physicians blame the police for wanting to tell them how to practice medicine; they both blame the pharmaceutical companies for only wanting to make money; and the politicians usually say whatever they think will get them elected. In the end, I fear that the legitimate patient ends up suffering, and the real problem of pharmaceutical abuse does not get properly addressed.

The right path to reducing drug diversion in America has not changed much; it still requires collaboration between many entities that include government, health professionals, private industry, and the concerned public if it is going to work. Getting together and finding solutions, as they seem to be doing in Utah, rather than finger-pointing, is the way to get it done.