Drug Overdose Deaths on the Rise

National Safety Council Says Prescription Painkillers Lead the Trend

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 22, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 22, 2008 (Anaheim, Calif.) -- Deaths from accidental drug overdoses have increased dramatically in recent years, and prescription painkillers account for much of the problem, according to research presented today at the National Safety Council meeting.

As deaths from workplace injuries and motor vehicle crashes have declined by about 19% in the last 15 years, death rates in the community and at home have risen 44%, Janet Froetscher, the president and CEO of the council, told participants attending the opening session.

When council researchers started to "unravel" the statistics, Froetscher tells WebMD, two areas for the increased home and community death rates jumped out: falls by the elderly and poisoning deaths.

Poisoning is a category that includes deaths from accidental drug overdoses from prescription drugs, illicit drugs, other solids and liquid substances, and gases and vapors, according to the council.

"The perception is that it's kids getting into the medicine cabinet," she says. Not so.

In 2006, about 24,000 people died in the U.S. from accidental drug overdoses, she says. That's a 100% increase from 2000.

The biggest rise in these accidental poisonings is among men and women of working age, 20 to 64, and is mainly due to abusing prescription pain medicines such as oxycodone, methadone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, and buprenorphine.

Drug Overdose Problem

The most rapid growth in accidental poisoning deaths during the past decade occurred in those 45 to 64 years old, Froetscher says, followed by those 25-44 and then 15-24.

Prescription opioids account for more than 38% of the deaths, Froetscher says, citing data from the CDC. Cocaine accounts for about 25%, heroin and other illicit drugs 14%, other drugs and unknown, 22.5%.

Among those who used the painkillers for non-medical purposes, 60% got them from a friend or relative, Froetscher says.

Drug Overdose Solutions

In the keynote address, William Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education and the first "drug czar" under the first President Bush, called for greater awareness of the growing drug abuse problem, including the problem with painkillers.

"Not too many years ago, we got drug use down," he told participants.

Attention needs to be shifted back to solve the problem, he says. Media, as well as the public and the current political candidates, have grown ho-hum about the problem, he charges.

He cited a May drug bust at San Diego State University in which 96 people, including 75 students, were arrested for a stash of drugs and guns. The story, he says, didn't get the coverage it would have gotten in the past.

"If this happened in the '80s it would have been on the cover of Time or Newsweek," he says.

He criticized the television show Weeds, shown on Showtime, which portrays a family making a living growing and selling marijuana. "Fifteen or 20 years ago, I submit that such a script would never make it on air," Bennett says.

"Drug abuse is not getting the attention it deserves in an election year," he says. While both Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate John McCain's wife, Cindy, have talked publicly about their past experiences with drugs, neither party's candidates have used the experiences as a "teachable moment," Bennett says.

Focusing more attention on the drug abuse problem, he says, would ideally involve reaching out to the Hollywood community and to athletes, persuading some who have overcome drug problems to join the anti-drug effort. "Let them be role models of what not to do," he says.

In an effort to educate employers about their workers' drug overdose problems, the National Safety Council will launch a campaign in March. The guide will include information about warning signs of painkiller abuse, among other facts, Froetscher says.

Show Sources


William J. Bennett, first U.S. drug czar; former Secretary of Education.

Janet Froetscher, president and CEO, National Safety Council, Itasca, Ill.

National Safety Council Congress and Expo, Anaheim, Calif., Sept. 19-26, 2008.

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