October 1, 2009

Drugs killing more people than cars in 5 western states

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I’m tempted to write that prescription drugs are the new scourge. But they’re not. They’re just becoming an increasingly dominant scourge. In Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Utah, Nevada  and 11 other states, drugs now kill more people than car accidents, a new government report says.

That kind of gave me whiplash. There are some surprising factoids in this report by the Centers for Disease Control. Most of the increase is attributed to prescription opiates including the painkillers methadone, Oxycontin and Vicodin. From 1999 to 2006, death rates for such medications climbed for every age group. That means teens and the elderly, along with adults taking the Rush Limbaugh slide into drug abuse because of chronic back pain and similar ailments. Deaths from methadone alone increased sevenfold, according to the CDC.

And much of this stuff is being prescribed, not stolen. About half of the opiate medication deaths in King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, involved people who got their drugs through legal prescriptions, according to a report in the Tacoma News Tribune.

People are dying from this stuff, and it’s not all from drug overdoses. Some of the deaths are from organ damage caused by long term exposure to these drugs.

According to Caleb Banta-Green, a University of Washington research scientist quoted in the News Tribune report, doctors first undertreated chronic pain. Perhaps now they’re overtreating it. About in five U.S. adults and one in 10 adolescents are prescribed an opiate each year, he said.

As for the car accident comparison? We’re becoming safer drivers.

“People see a car accident as something that might happen to them,” said Margaret Warner, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But as for death from a drug overdose, “maybe they see it as something that’s not going happen to them.”

Perhaps it’s time to see prescription drug abuse as something that very well might happen to us.

— Rita Hibbard

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