U.S. Rx Painkiller Deaths Up
Prescription Painkiller Abusers May Account for Many Lethal Overdoses, Experts Say
July 24, 2006 -- Accidental deaths from prescription painkillers have risen
in recent years in the U.S., show no signs of slowing down, and may be largely
due to painkiller abuse.
The CDC's Leonard Paulozzi, MD, MPH, and colleagues, report the news in
Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety's online "Early View"
Paulozzi's team checked CDC death certificate data on unintended deaths from
opioid painkillers including oxycondone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, and methadone.
- Unintended prescription painkiller deaths rose 91% from 1999-2002.
- Unintended deaths from heroin and cocaine rose by lesser amounts during the
same period (about 12% for heroin and nearly 23% for cocaine).
The researchers write that in 2002, the latest year studied, "opioids
were listed without cocaine or heroin in 4,451 deaths that year, more than the
combined number of deaths listing either cocaine alone (2,569) or heroin alone
Drug Sales on the Rise
The rise in unintended prescription painkiller deaths mirrored an increase
in sales of the drugs. The data also showed several clues about painkiller
For instance, men in their 40s accounted for many of the opioid deaths. And
the background of people who accidentally died using prescription opioids
matched those from other drug abuse deaths.
Those traits "do not match those of people who typically experience
chronic pain, who are more likely to be female and older," the researchers
More steps may need to be taken to prevent painkiller abuse "without
diminishing the quality of care for patients with a legitimate need for pain
management," write Paulozzi and colleagues.
Painkiller abuse is a big problem, journal editorialists agree.
One editorial -- written by researchers including David Joranson, MSSW, of
the University of Wisconsin at Madison -- calls for better data on painkiller
abuse. The data Paulozzi's team used don't show which patients were abusing
Another editorial -- written by Scott Fishman, MD, of the pain medicine
division at the University of California, Davis - calls for aggressive action
against painkiller abuse.
But drug abuse solutions "must not undermine patients in pain,"
Fishman writes. "The least we can do is make sure that the casualties of
the war on drugs are not suffering patients who legitimately deserve
relief," he adds.