Painkiller Deaths Tripled in 10 Years | The Fix
facebook twitter RSS
HOT TOPICS: Alcoholism  Addiction  AA  Cocaine  Heroin

Painkiller Deaths Tripled in 10 Years

According to a new government report, an epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse is causing more fatalities than heroin and cocaine combined.


Heath Ledger fell victim in 2008. Photo via

By Will Godfrey


| Share

Just in case anyone still doubted the extent of the prescription drug epidemic gripping the US, along comes a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detailing a huge surge in painkiller abuse and overdose deaths—which have tripled in the past ten years. In 1999, 4,000 people died from painkiller ODs. By 2008, that had risen to 14,800 attributed fatalities—Heath Ledger was the most famous of them—or 4.8 per 100,000 population. And with 12 million Americans—5% of those aged 12 and over—using these drugs unprescribed in 2010, mortality rates are unlikely to have dropped since, as the report notes. Death is typically caused by respiratory depression, which stops you breathing. Sales to pharmacies, hospitals and doctors' offices of opiod painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin have quadrupled since 1999. In 2010, enough opiod painkillers were sold to give every single American adult a 5mg dose of hydrocodone every four hours for a whole month.

Painkiller abuse is highest among white and Native American populations, in rural and poor areas, among men and among middle-aged people. Many get hooked on legitimately prescribed drugs, quickly building up a tolerance. In some areas, many of these addicts move on to use heroin—although to describe this as an escalation of the problem is perhaps missing the point, when prescription pain pills themselves now kill more US citizens than heroin and cocaine put together. What's more, these stark stats actually underestimate the lethal impact of painkillers, because many death certificates fail to specify the drug responsible. So where's the hope here? Well, the government can hardly ignore numbers like these; a federal prescription tracking program has been approved by every state except Missouri and New Hampshire this year. And the nature of supply is more concentrated, and so perhaps more easily targeted, than the countless street-level dealers of previous illegal drug epidemics: one study showed that just 3% of doctors account for 62% of all the opiod painkillers prescribed in the US, and they can now expect to find themselves under more scrutiny than ever. "It is an epidemic but it can be stopped," says CDC Director Thomas Frieden.

Rehabilitation Directories

Most Popular
Sober Living
An Audience with Gabor Maté

According to the rock star of addiction theory, every addict had a traumatic childhood whether they realize it or not.

The Rehab Review
Cliffside Malibu

The “beach-house-relaxed” Cliffside Malibu claims to provide an oasis for recovering addicts and alcoholics. And that’s just what you'll get—if you’ve got the cash.

Morningside Recovery

For a “rehab near the beach” experience that isn’t quite as costly as similar SoCal competitors, head to this Newport Beach treatment facility.

AToN Center

Whether you’re interested in the 12 Steps, SMART Recovery, or holistic treatments, this luxurious, appealing and commendable 4.5 star (our system doesn't yet show the 1/2 star) San Diego rehab has a program for you. 


This exclusive Northern California rehab is all about client choice—as well as golf outings, Buddhist field trips and keeping up with the office.

Capo By The Sea

Capo By The Sea offers an executive rehab program complete with medical detox and a focus on dual-diagnosis issues, as well as an outpatient option in an environment that exudes the kind of beach house optimism one would expect from an Orange County recovery outfit.

Journey Malibu

Want many of the luxury amenities A-listers have come to expect—including an enormous backyard with a pool and patio, an herb garden, a volleyball net and a spectacular vista of the Santa Monica mountains—with a recovery program to match?

The Ultimate Guide to Rehab

What you need to know when choosing an addiction treatment center.

the fix tv