Drug overdose deaths rose in 2010 for the 11th straight year, killing over 39,000 Americans, according to new figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nearly 60 percent of the overdose deaths — 22,134 — involved prescription medicines, rather than illegal narcotics. Three out of four medicine-related deaths involved opioids such as OxyContin and Vicodin, and only 17 percent were suicides — the larger fraction were accidental.
“The big picture is that this is a big problem that has gotten much worse quickly,” says CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden.
ACSH’s Dr. Josh Bloom notes that these figures can be misleading. He says, “It is not uncommon for people to attempt suicide with something like Vicodin, survive the narcotic, but then die from irreversible liver damage from the acetaminophen—the other component in almost all opiate medictions. Fortunately, the FDA has recently taken action to lower the amount of acetaminophen in drugs like Vicodin and Percocet. It will be interesting to see if this decreases the number of overdose deaths. It really should.”
Dr. Bloom also argues that it is important to separate the medical and law enforcement aspects of opiates, since it is the patients that need pain relief who will suffer the most when the two intersect. You can read his recent op-ed, entitled “When Medicine and Law Enforcement Mix, Patients Lose” here.
The report was published in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association.