Prescription pain medicine overdoses now kill more people in the U.S. than heroin and cocaine combined, with 40 Americans dying every day from painkiller abuse.
“This stems from a few irresponsible doctors,” said Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The problem is more from them than from drug pushers on street corners.” One California study found three percent of doctors wrote 62 percent of painkiller prescriptions, reports Daniel J. DeNoon of WebMD Health News.
Prescription-drug abuse has tripled since 1999, with 1 in 20 U.S. adults admitting to taking the drugs for pleasure rather than need. According to the CDC, the drugs most abused are Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone), Opana (oxymorphone) and methadone. In 2010, pharmacies sold enough of those drugs, and ones similar to them, “to give everyone in the U.S. a typical 5-milligram dose of hydrocodone every four hours for one month,” DeNoon reports.
Abuse is more common in men than women; in rural than urban areas; in non-Hispanic whites than in other races or ethnicities; and in middle-age adults than younger or older adults.
The problem has grown to epidemic proportions in Kentucky, with more people dying from prescription drug overdoses than car accidents, The Courier-Journal reported. Much of the problem stems from Florida, which until September did not have a drug-monitoring system in place. Dealers from Kentucky would drive down to the Sunshine State and obtain prescriptions from several doctors at a time. They would then return to Kentucky to sell their haul. While a tracking system is now in place, there continues to be loopholes in Florida’s law and the fear is pill mill operators will move to other states.
Frieden said states need to monitor who is prescribing the drugs; prevent doctor shopping; make prescriptions available for just three days of use at a time; and have doctors resort to narcotics only as a the last measure to control pain. “We are in an epidemic of prescription drug abuse,” Frieden said. “This epidemic can be stopped.”
In Kentucky, an effort has been launched to target “drug dealers in white coats” and involves a plan designed to root out doctors with suspicious prescription practices and pass legislation to better track prescriptions.
U.S. “drug czar” Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the White House has a goal of cutting down on prescription drug abuse by 15 percent by 2015. Kerlikowske visited Kentucky and adjoining states in February to assess the problem. He said he doesn’t want the progress to come at the expense of people who truly need prescription painkillers.
“We don’t want to turn the clock back to see people who need these medications not get them,” he said.
Story by Kentucky Health News, a service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues funded by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.