Drug Poisoning Deaths Now Exceed Car Accident Fatalities in the U.S.

Posted on December 24th, 2011

The rate of deaths caused by drug overdoses has now surpassed the rate of deaths from motor vehicular accidents, which has always remained the leading cause of accidental deaths in the U.S.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report confirming the nation’s mortality rates for 2008, with poisonings as the new leading cause of accidental deaths. In 30 states, poisonings were the leading cause of accidental deaths, of which 90% were attributed to drugs. Over the last three decades, drug-related poisoning deaths have increased six-fold, rising from 6,000 deaths in 1980 to over 36,500 in 2008. The report’s authors attribute this drastic increase in drug poisonings to the nation’s prescription drug abuse epidemic, which they predict will only worsen in coming years.

In 2008, unintentional deaths (accidents) were the fifth overall leading cause of death for Americans. In its National Vital Statistics Reports, the CDC reports that 38,649 deaths were drug-induced (both licit and illicit drugs), while 37,985 deaths were caused by motor vehicular crashes. Since 1999, the rate of poisoning deaths in the U.S. has increased by 90% while deaths caused by motor vehicular accidents dropped by 15%, according to the report’s authors.

Based on the CDC’s findings for 2008, the rate of drug poisoning deaths in the U.S. has risen among all age, gender, and ethnical/race groups within the past ten years. Males between the ages of 45 and 54 years saw the biggest increase. For all 2008 drug-induced deaths, 77% were due to unintentional drug overdose, 9% were attributed to ‘undetermined intent,’ and 13% were due to suicide. More than 40% of all drug poisoning deaths in 2008 were found to be caused by opioid painkillers (around 15,000 deaths), whereas opioid-related deaths were once 25% of all drug-related deaths in 1999 (4,000 deaths). During the ten-year time span, deaths caused by opioid prescription drug abuse have risen more than three-fold, leading the CDC into declaring the problem an ongoing ‘national epidemic.’

Because the statistics for prescription drug-related mortality are definitive, they provide researchers a greater understanding of how widespread the problem has become over time. In November, the CDC released data showing the number of prescription drug-related deaths in 2010 had exceeded the number of deaths caused by cocaine and heroin combined. However, the mortality data still does not account of the number of prescription drug users and abusers still misusing the drugs, or how many new users become victims of the epidemic each year. Based on self-reported surveys in 2010, approximately 12 million Americans admit to misusing opioid prescription drugs, with the sale of these drugs increasing fourfold in a single year. Moreover, nearly 500,000 emergency department visits were made in 2009 due to misuse of opioid painkillers, an increase of 98% in just five years—resulting in more than $72 billion in health care costs, according to the CDC.

The rate of nonfatal misuse of prescription drugs is not only much larger than the high rate of fatalities, but it has drastically increased in a short period of time—indicating that prescription drug addiction is now one of the nation’s greatest threats to Americans’ health. Some states have imposed certain bans or restrictions on prescription drug availability that discourage the presence of “pill mills” which offer unsolicited amounts of the drugs to any of the clinics’ visitors, or through prescription drug monitoring programs which eliminate the number of “doctor shopping” dealers and users who attempt to obtain these drugs illegally.

The CDC recommends the need to treat the prescription drug abuse problem from multiple angles; to start, health care professionals should screen their patients prior to prescribing them these potent drugs, and should orient patients on the importance of safely using the drugs and the dangers of misusing or sharing them. Effective safety programs like statewide prescription drug monitoring programs help target illegal drug activity among doctors and users alike, but more funding needs to be made available to make them successful. Lastly, physicians should consider other forms of treatment to remedy their patients’ pain as an alternative to the powerful opioid painkillers whenever possible. Until sound solutions are made to challenge the growing level of prescription drug misuse, the problem will still remain a national health epidemic.

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