Prescription painkillers now kill more people than heroin and cocaine combined, and that number continues to steadily rise. Researchers from McGill University in Canada conducted the very first review of research on the issue and published their findings in the American Journal of Public Health.
The team’s research revealed that in the United States in 2010, prescription painkillers were a factor in over 16,000 deaths. These drugs slow down the breathing and cause sedation. It is common for a person abusing these drugs to require larger doses in order to feel the same sense of euphoria, resulting in an overdose in which their breathing slows down so much that it stops altogether.
The author of the study, Nicholas King, works in the Biomedical Ethics Unit in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. For the investigation, he teamed up with researchers to review 144 existing studies. These reports contained quantifiable evidence of determining factors that led to an increase in opioid-related deaths between 1990 and 2013 in the United States and Canada.
The team discovered during their research that 17 determining factors increase opioid-related deaths and put them into three categories: characteristics and behavior of the user, systemic and environmental factors, and prescriber behavior. King explained that the main determinants were not the sale of pharmaceuticals on the Internet or mistakes made by doctors and patients, which have been cited by the media in the past. “It’s much larger and systemic,” King said. The major factors were the increased sale and prescribing of opioids, the use of opioids in combination with other drugs and alcohol, the rise in the use of stronger and longer-lasting opioids like Oxycontin, and demographic and social factors.
The researchers’ findings are important, but they explained that the determining factors work independently and have variables. Professor King asserts that what they have found indicates that doctors, the health care system, users and the environment play a large role in contributing to prescription painkiller abuse.
Although heroin and cocaine are potent narcotics that kill many people, prescription painkillers are often combined with other drugs, making them more lethal than usual. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least one other drug, including alcohol, is involved in approximately half of all fatalities due to opioids. The CDC also reports that in 2010, more than 12 million individuals admitted to using prescription painkillers when they did not have a prescription, or because of the feeling caused by the drugs.
To widen the market in the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies started diligently advertising their narcotics to doctors as treatment for chronic pain in patients without cancer, although there was no evidence to support their safety for long-term use. Before that time, these drugs were mainly used to treat cancer patients. As a result, the sale and number of prescriptions of opioid-based painkillers started to increase.
The sale of opioid painkillers to pharmacies, clinics and hospitals in the U.S. quadrupled between 1999 and 2010, as did the number of fatalities from opioid overdoses. According to the CDC, since 1990, fatalities by drug overdose, most of which are caused by prescription painkillers, have more than tripled.
The use and abuse of stronger prescription painkillers has gone up, and is contributing to the fact that these drugs kill more people than cocaine and heroin combined. Professor King and his research team expressed that part of the problem is the strength of drugs like Oxycontin, which are much more potent that they were in the past. The sale of many strong painkillers between 1997 and 2006 increased widely, as methadone sales went up by 1,177 percent, Fentanyl saw a rise of 732 percent, and Oxycodone increased by 732 percent. The number of overdose fatalities also increased, but the sale and prescribing of strong painkillers continues. Zohydro, the newest opioid painkiller on the market, is 10 times as strong as Vicodin and is the most powerful FDA-approved prescription painkiller ever made available in pharmacies.
By Twanna Harps