Fueling the surge are prescription pain and anxiety drugs that are potent, highly addictive and especially dangerous.
Lori Smith of Aliso Viejo with photographs of her son Nolan, who died of a drug overdose in January 2009, six months shy of his 16th birthday. A toxicology test turned up Zoloft, which had been prescribed for anxiety, and a host of other drugs that had not been prescribed, including two additional anti-anxiety drugs, as well as morphine and marijuana. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times / September 18, 2011).
Propelled by an increase in prescription narcotic overdoses, drug deaths now outnumber traffic fatalities in the United States, a Times analysis of government data has found. Drugs exceeded motor vehicle accidents as a cause of death in 2009, killing at least 37,485 people nationwide, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While most major causes of preventable death are declining, drugs are an exception. The death toll has doubled in the last decade, now claiming a life every 14 minutes. By contrast, traffic accidents have been dropping for decades because of huge investments in auto safety. Public health experts have used the comparison to draw attention to the nation's growing prescription drug problem, which they characterize as an epidemic. This is the first time that drugs have accounted for more fatalities than traffic accidents since the government started tracking drug-induced deaths in 1979. Fueling the surge in deaths are prescription pain and anxietydrugs that are potent, highly addictive and especially dangerous when combined with one another or with other drugs or alcohol. Among the most commonly abused areOxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax and Soma. One relative newcomer to the scene is Fentanyl, a painkiller that comes in the form of patches and lollipops and is 100 times more powerful than morphine. Such drugs now cause more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined.
The most commonly abused prescription drug, hydrocodone, also is the most widely prescribed drug in America, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Better known as Vicodin, the pain reliever is prescribed more often than the top cholesterol drug and the top antibiotic. "We have an insatiable appetite for this drug — insatiable," Joseph T. Rannazzisi, a top DEA administrator, told a group of pharmacists at a regulatory meeting in Sacramento. In April, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy announced initiatives aimed at stanching prescription drug abuse. The plans include a series of drug take-back days, modeled after similar programs involving weapons, in which consumers are encouraged to turn leftover prescription drugs in to authorities.
Another initiative would develop voluntary courses to train physicians on how to safely prescribe pain drugs, a curriculum that is not widely taught in medical schools. Initial attempts to reverse the trend in drug deaths — such as state-run prescription drug-monitoring programs aimed at thwarting "doctor-shopping" addicts — don't appear to be having much effect, experts say. "What's really scary is we don't know a lot about how to reduce prescription deaths," said Amy S.B. Bohnert, a researcher at the University of Michigan Medical School who is studying ways to lower the risk of prescription drugs. "It's a wonderful medical advancement that we can treat pain," Bohnert said. "But we haven't figured out the safety belt yet."