Killer Pills! America's Deadliest Health Crisis - Page 2

By Kevin Gray 12/22/11

For the past 100 years, car crashes have been the nation's leading cause of accidental death. Now, for the first time, more Americans die from prescription pills—including ten very popular meds.

ER visits caused by prescription drugs topped 1 million for the first time in 2009.
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Jones does see one bright spot in the otherwise grim report. Methadone, which is used as a pain reliever as well as to treat opioid dependency, had been on the uptick for nearly a decade—from about 800 deaths in 1999 to about 5,500 in 2007. But for reasons not yet clear, that number dropped by remarkable 600 deaths in 2008. “For  many years it had been the most common opioid in overdose deaths,” says Jones. “We don’t know if it’s just that people have shifted to these other drugs of what. But it’s promising. We’ve have to wait and see what we find when we look at  2009.”

In terms of the big picture, however, the fact that prescription drugs have overtaken automobiles as the nation’s leading cause of accidental deaths marks a deeper societal transformation. One of the most defining developments in twentieth-century America was motorization; as more people bought more cars and drove more miles, more accidents, injuries and deaths were the inevitable result until government intervention bent the curve. The 21st century is shaping up to be about, among other things, the pharmaceuticalization of America, as lifelong prescription drug use starting in early childhood becomes the norm.

How will pill popping transform our lives? Certain things are predictable: The drug industry will develop and sell more and more chemicals targeted at the brain, which remains medical science’s “black box”; that will result in treatments to enhance the performance of mood, cognition, attention, memory and other mental functions that will have become, in due course, “medical conditions.” Any pill that promises to make you smarter or happier invites abuse, and some will be as addictive as Oxy or the “morphine popsicle.” But with the enforcement of effective policies—the seat belts and DUI laws of pharmaceuticalization—the drug industry’s off-label marketing and the medical profession’s overprescribing could be dramatically curtailed.

Given the current state of corporate influence over politics, these reforms are anything but predictable. What's at stake is nothing less than the nation’s expanding medicine cabinet doubling as its morgue.


The Top 10 Most Dangerous Rx Drugs in America

This list of brand name and generic drugs was compiled from the Drug Abuse Warning Network's (DAWN's) database of emergency room visits in 2009, including drug poisonings that lead to both deaths and survivals.

1. Xanax (alprazolam) 112,552 (benzodiazepine class)

2. OxyContin (and other oxycodone drugs) 105,214 (opiate class) 

3. Vicodin (and other hydrocodone drugs) 86,258 (opiate class)

4. Methadone 63,031 (opiate class)

5. Klonopin (clonazepam) 57,633 (benzodiazepine class)

6. Ativan (lorazepam) 36,582 (benzodiazepine class)

7. Morphine drugs 31,731 (opiate class)

8. Seroquel (quetiapine) 29,436 (antipsychotic class)

9. Ambien (zolpidem) 29,127 (sedative class)

10. Valium (diazepam) 25,150 (benzodiazepine)





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Kevin Gray is a New York-based journalist. He writes about business, crime, politics and celebrity. He has reported from the Congo, Libya, Lebanon, Colombia, China and throughout the US. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, New York, Details, People, Men’s Journal and the Washington Post. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.