Poisoning deaths in the U.S. have risen sharply and are now the leading cause of accidental death among white Americans, according to new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study, which focused on the gap in life expectancy rates between blacks and whites, uncovered data showing a sudden increase in poisoning deaths among whites.
Between 2003 and 2008, the poisoning death rate for white women of all ages increased by 74%. For white men the rate increased by 61%. Poisoning deaths among African-Americans also rose, but by much smaller amounts.
The increase in poisoning deaths among white Americans was a major factor in the shrinking gap in life expectancy between blacks and whites. The gap is smaller now than it ever has been, with white men living an average of 5.4 years longer than black men. White women live an average of 3.7 years longer than black women.
In previous studies, auto accidents were the most common cause of accidental death, but poisonings have surpassed vehicular accidents as the leading cause of accidental death among whites.
“A potential explanation for the contribution of unintentional injury to the narrowing racial gap may be recent increases in poisoning mortality, which has now eclipsed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of injury death and has affected middle-aged white men more than any other group,” wrote lead author Sam Harper, PhD, of McGill University in Montreal. “The black-white life expectancy gap is still large, and declines since 2003 due to HIV and heart disease are a positive development, but rapid increases in accidental death among whites also have contributed to this change.”
The rate of poisoning deaths among whites aged 20 to 54 was nearly twice that of blacks.
On average, 27.62 white men in that age group died from poisoning for every 100,000 deaths in 2008, compared to 16.17 poisoning deaths among black men.
Among white women, there were 14.15 deaths from poisoning, compared to 7.81 among black women.
The exact causes of the poisoning deaths were not broken down in the study, although many experts believe it is being driven by a rise in the number of deaths caused by prescription opioid medications. One possible explanation for the racial differences in poisoning deaths is that white Americans have more access to painkillers.
“I would imagine that this is disparity in health care backfiring on the Caucasian population,” said Igor Galynker, a psychiatrist and associate chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. “White Americans have better access to health care and also probably have access to physicians that have more time for them, have more time to listen to their individual needs, and are more inclined to prescribe prescription painkillers and prescription opioids.”
A study released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that over half of the 14,800 drug poisoning deaths in the U.S. in 2008 involved opioid analgesics such as morphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone.
“Misuse or abuse of prescription drugs, including opioid analgesic pain relievers, is responsible for much of the increase in drug poisoning deaths,” the CDC study concluded.
“This story should certainly give the reader pause in the evolving and heated debate about the use of narcotic medications and the treatment of unrelenting pain,” said Daniel Bennett, MD, DABPM, a Denver pain physician who is the Chief Medical Officer of American News Report. “Healthcare providers have inadequate education or misconceptions regarding when and how to use these medications effectively, as well as how to manage people effectively once on the medication. Legislators are torn between public safety and the outcry from people who have been harmed from misuse of these valuable medications, often confusing addiction with pain as a disease. Compounding this is the pharmaceutical industry, including some who have introduced questionable practices in the marketing of these medications.”