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Rx drug deaths triple in decade
November 1st, 2011
03:47 PM ET

Rx drug deaths triple in decade

Inappropriately used prescription pain medications kill 15,000 people in the United States each year, according to a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We're in the midst of an epidemic," says CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden. "Narcotics prescribed by physicians kill 40 people per day."

Deaths due to prescription painkiller overdoses now exceed the number of heroin and cocaine overdose deaths combined, says Frieden, who is joining  Gil Kerlikowske, the director of National Drug Control Policy, also known as the nation's drug czar, to raise awareness about how prescription drug abuse deaths have tripled since 1999.

According to the data released Tuesday, 1 in 20 or 12 million Americans age 12 and older has misused prescription painkillers like oxycodone (Oxycotin), methadone or hydrocodone (Vicodin) and middle-aged adults have the highest overdose rates.

Health officials say that enough prescription painkillers were prescribed last year to medicate every adult every four hours for an entire month, and this type of drug abuse is costing insurance companies up to $72.5 million each year. Just a few months ago, the CDC reported that opioid pain medication abuse accounts for the most common poisonings treated in emergency departments and nearly 1 million people in the United States are currently addicted to some type of opiates.

Kerlikowske calls prescription drug abuse "our nation's largest drug problems," which he recognizes can't be solved overnight.  More needs to be done, he said, to reduce the number of people starting to abuse prescription painkillers, which stands at about 5,500 each day, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Only Missouri and New Hampshire haven't set up prescription monitoring programs,  electronic databases that track all painkiller prescriptions in that state. Improving these monitoring systems and making them easily accessible to physicians and pharmacists in other states could allow easier spotting of  a red flag if someone is trying to get multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors or pharmacies.

States could also do more to shut down so-called "pill mills," where doctors or pharmacists inappropriately dispense these type of drugs.

Doctors should also screen their patients for substance abuse or mental illness, the CDC suggests, to prevent someone from getting addicted to these drugs. Also, physicians are encouraged to only prescribe the appropriate amount of painkiller, if necessary. So if someone needs only three days' worth of Vicodin for example, don't prescribe a 30-day supply.

Kerlikowske hopes that if appropriate measures are taken at the federal, state and local level, this drug abuse epidemic can be reduced by 15% in the next few years.


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.