Poisonings through drug overdose have tripled in the U.S. in the past three decades and, according to a recent report published earlier this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 46 Americans die every day from an overdose of prescription painkillers. These prescriptions are primarily opioid or narcotic pain relievers.
Twice as many painkillers are prescribed in the U.S. than in Canada. Southern states have higher percentages of prescribed painkillers. In 2012, the CDC found that some states prescribed painkillers at as much as three times the rate of others, and in total more bottles of pills were prescribed than there were adult Americans living at the time.
The report went on to show the correlation between the amount of painkillers prescribed by health care providers and the number of drug overdoses. When Florida began to monitor and restrict the number of prescription painkillers in 2010, the state saw a 50 percent decrease in deaths caused by oxycodone overdose within two years.
The CDC recommends that states create a database for health providers to access before prescribing painkillers because of the recent success this has had in New York. Beginning in 2012, New York doctors were required to check the state’s prescription drug monitoring system before prescribing painkillers. A year later New York saw a 75 percent decline in the number of patients acquiring painkillers from multiple medical centers.
Forty-nine states operate or have pending legislation authorizing prescription drug monitoring programs, but there is a concern that cracking down on painkillers only shifts the problem onto other substances, primarily another opiate, heroin. Studies by the CDC shows that 75 percent of people with a dependence on heroin began with prescription painkillers. Kentucky and Tennessee are examples of how lowering painkiller availability may lead to fewer prescription poisonings, but American doctors, such as Dr. Eric Fulcher, who works as an emergency room physician at Sts. Mary and Elizabeth Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, now have to attend to more than one heroin drug overdose every day.
In Kentucky a bill passed in 2012 increased the oversight and restrictions on prescribing and dispensing standards for controlled substances, requiring prescribers to use an electronic prescription drug-monitoring system called KASPER. Supporters of the law claim that pill abuse is lower, while critics point out that it has also limited legitimate patients’ access to painkillers and steered addicts to heroin as a substitution. It does not take long for addicts cut off from their pill supply to discover that heroin is not only readily available but also significantly cheaper. In Kentucky, deaths caused by heroin drug overdose rose from 22 in 2011 to 143 in 2012 and up to 168 through September of 2013. Kentucky officials say that they are increasing treatment, but The Courier-Journal reports that treatment options are limited, and that heroin addicts are costing agencies statewide an estimated $6 billion annually by filling jails, courts, hospitals and treatment centers.
Initially the CDC commended Tennessee’s Controlled Substance Monitoring Database, which was created in 2002 and expanded in 2012 by the Prescription Safety Act, when statistics showed the lowering of drug overdoses. Opioid abuse has become so prevalent in Tennessee, however, that state officials announced Friday that it has reached an epidemic level throughout the state’s 95 counties, and that the network needed more work in order to prevent the supply and demand for illicit prescription painkillers. In Tennessee more than 200,000 residents used painkillers for non-medical purposes last year and nearly 70,000 are addicted to prescription opioids.
These states only highlight what is a national problem. Between 2011 and 2013, Quest Diagnostics performed a study on an analysis of 1,409,037 de-identified urine lab-test results of patients across the U.S. from varying demographics, which showed that prescription abuse is increasing at alarming rates. In the U.S., the number of heroin users increased nearly 80 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The CDC provides the following information for centers that are open every day for Americans who need assistance for drug overdose: 1-800-662-HELP for substance abuse problems or Poison Help 1-800-222-1222 for general questions about prescription painkillers.
By Sarah Hutchins