More Americans now die from overdosing on painkillers than from overdosing on heroin and cocaine combined, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released on Tuesday.
“Narcotics prescribed by physicians kill 40 people a day,” CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden told reporters in a conference call.
Deaths linked to opioid pain relievers such as OxyContin, Vicodin, and Opana have become an epidemic, Frieden said, adding that the rate of deaths has more than tripled in the past decade.
“Epidemic -- that’s not a word that I or the national public-health community uses lightly,” said R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Kerlikowske later noted that in 17 states, more people die from overdosing on painkillers than in motor vehicle accidents.
The rising rates of opioid misuse put a burden on both hospitals and insurers. Roughly half a million emergency-room visits were linked to opioid abuse in 2009, according to CDC data; health care costs associated with opioid painkiller abuse cost insurers $72.5 billion each year.
“Prescription painkillers are meant to help people who have severe pain. They are, however, highly addictive,” Frieden said.
More than two-thirds of states with above-average death rates from opioid pain reliever overdose also had higher-than-average rates of ‘nonmedical’ use of such drugs, the CDC report found. Illegal ‘pill mills,’ or pain clinics, help funnel drugs to abusers as do doctors who overprescribe and patients who ask multiple doctors for prescriptions in a practice known as doctor-shopping.
Middle-aged, rural Americans are more likely to die of a painkiller overdose, the CDC report found; the poor, American-Indian, and Alaska-Native populations are particularly vulnerable.
Regional variation makes intervention at the state and local levels vital, Frieden and Kerlikowske said. Better monitoring and enforcement can help stop prescription-drug trafficking and abuse, while making sure that patients who really need the medication get it.
At the federal level, efforts to stem the epidemic involve the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The Obama administration has set the goal of reducing drug-related deaths by 15 percent by 2015.