New Statistics Show Prescription Drug Deaths Quadrupled In U.S.

By McCarton Ackerman 09/17/14

The number of overdoses have skyrocketed in recent years, particularly among older Americans.

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New statistics released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have highlighted just how severe the prescription drug epidemic is in the U.S., with prescription drug deaths quadrupling between 1999-2011.

Approximately 4,263 deaths were linked to opioid overdoses in 1999, but that number had climbed to 17,000 in 2011, and didn’t include those from benzodiazepine drugs such as Xanax and Klonopin. The numbers could be even higher because specific drugs weren’t named in about 25% of all drug deaths. The greatest increase in death rates occurred in Americans between 55-65 years old.

“The amount that [opioids] are administered by well-meaning physicians is excessive,” said Dr. Robert Waldman, an addiction medicine consultant not involved with the research. “Most physicians are people-pleasers who want to help and want to meet people’s needs, and they are more inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt until you are shown otherwise.”

However, drug deaths have slowed down in other groups such as the age 15-24 demographic. This could be due to a renewed focus on drug education in many school districts across the country, local drug treatment programs and law enforcement activities.

Other recent reports have also highlighted the ongoing prescription drug problem. The National Institute of Drug Abuse reported last April that over 100 overdose deaths occur per day, making prescription drugs more deadly than car accidents, guns, and suicide. More than five million Americans abuse painkillers each year, while 2.2 million are abusing tranquilizers and another 1.1 million are recklessly using stimulants. Enough painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult every four hours for a month.

Emergency room visits related to prescription drugs also doubled for seniors between the ages of 55-65. “There's this growing group of seniors, they have pain, they have anxiety … and a lot of (doctors) have one thing in their tool box—a prescription pad,” said Mel Pohl, director of the Las Vegas Recovery Center. "The doctor wants to make their life better, so they start on the meds.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.