Utah Sees 400% Increase in Prescription Drug Deaths Over Past Decade

By John Lavitt 12/08/14

Even the ultra-conservative Mormon State has been plagued by prescription drug overdoses.

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In an alarming report by the Utah Department of Health, the conservative state has experienced a "400% increase in deaths associated with misuse and abuse of prescription drugs." 

Climbing the most frightening of lists, prescription drug overdose is now one of the main causes of injury deaths in Utah. The statistics reported on by the Utah Department of Health in November revealed that an average of 21 residents of the state die as a result of prescription pain medications each month. 

Utah's "Use Only as Directed prescription safety campaign" has uncovered a persistent trend of prescription medication abuse across the state. Amid the revelations of extensive abuse, perhaps the most staggering number is that 97% of adults in the state have taken and used prescription medication from a friend or family member without first getting a prescription from a doctor. A true recipe for increased addiction rates, such a statistic is the motor generating the significant increase in the overdose rates leading to death.

Despite a sharp increase in public awareness advertisements on both radio and television, the impact seems to be negligible. As the country’s first and most endemic Mormon state, most Utah citizens are forbidden coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drugs. Prohibited in the LDS faith, such intoxicants are not to be used by church members. Unfortunately, prescription medications are legal and are seen by many as being completely separate from the prohibition on illegal drugs. 

As a direct result, Utah has had high prescription drug abuse rates for years. In 2013, Utah ranked 8th highest among states for drug overdose deaths in the entire country. Considering the small size of the state’s population, the high ranking is even more shocking.

A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study found that Utah led the U.S. in the non-medical use of prescription drugs in 2004 and 2005 with 6.5% of the population using drugs without a doctor’s order. Furthermore, the study revealed a troubling trend of prescription painkiller use by kids in junior high and high school.  Interviewed by the Desert News, Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force agent Randy Lythgoe explained, “It’s becoming an accepted thing to do in high school, because they (students) don’t associate danger with it.” 

Given the extended history of prescription drug abuse in Utah, the 400% spike in prescription drug deaths no longer seems so surprising. The problem has become so prevalent that the CDC recently awarded the state of Utah $1 million to fight prescription drug abuse. Recognizing the intense problem of the prescription drug epidemic in the state, Deputy White House Drug Policy Director Michael Botticelli said during a 2014 visit to Salt Lake City, “From the perspective of the White House, I think we know clearly that we can’t continue to arrest our way out of the problem, that we have to deal with addiction from a public health standpoint.”

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.