About 50 Americans die each day from prescription painkiller overdoses and over six million are abusing or misusing prescription drugs, according to a new report by the Trust for Public Health.
The report, Prescription Drug Abuse: Strategies to Stop the Epidemic found that drug overdose deaths – a majority of which are from prescription painkillers – doubled in 29 states since 1999. The mortality rate from overdoses tripled in 10 of those states and quadrupled in four of them – West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and Iowa.
The rise in overdose deaths mirrored a surge in the prescribing of opioid pain medicines. Sales of prescription painkillers per capita quadrupled from 1999 to 2010. Enough prescription painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult continually for a month.
The misuse and abuse of prescription painkillers alone costs the country over $53 billion each year in lost productivity, medical costs and criminal justice costs.
“Prescription drugs can be a miracle for many, but misuse can have dire consequences. The rapid rise of abuse requires nothing short of a full-scale response – starting with prevention and education all the way through to expanding and modernizing treatment,” said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for Public Health.
“There are many promising signs that we can turn this around – but it requires urgent action.”
One promising sign is that the number of people 12 years or older abusing prescription
drugs decreased from 7 million in 2010 to 6.1 million in 2011 — a 12% percent decrease. Misuse by teens and young adults has also started to decline.
In Florida, deaths related to the painkiller oxycodone dropped by 17% in 2011, after the state began a prescription drug monitoring program and closed dozens of pill mills. Florida’s crackdown has come at a cost, however, with many legitimate pain patients saying they have been denied access to pain medications.
The report found that overdoses vary considerably from state to state, with Appalachian and Southwestern states having the highest overdose death rates. Rates are lowest in the Midwest.
West Virginia had the highest number of drug overdose deaths, nearly 29 deaths for every 100,000 people – a 605% increase from 1999. North Dakota had the lowest overdose death rate at 3.4 per every 100,000 people.
“This is a very real epidemic – and warrants a strong public health response,” said Andrea Gielen, Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy. “We must use the best lessons we know from other public health and injury prevention success stories to work in partnership with clinical care, law enforcement, the business community, community-based organizations, and other partners to work together to curb this crisis.”
Key recommendations from the report include:
- Educate the public on the risks of prescription drug use.
- Educate healthcare providers and prescribers to better understand how medications can be misused and to identify patients in need of treatment.
- Increase understanding about safe storage and disposal of medication.
- Make sure legitimate patients get the pain medications they need.
- Improve and fully-fund Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, to quickly identify doctor shoppers and problem prescribers.
- Make overdose “rescue” medications like naloxone more widely available.
- Expand access to addiction treatment programs.
The report ranked all 50 states in 10 different categories on their effectiveness in fighting prescription drug abuse. New Mexico and Vermont were given the highest scores, with South Dakota the lowest.
The Trust for Public Health report was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.