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Drug deaths now outnumber traffic fatalities in U.S.

Deaths caused by drugs have topped traffic-related deaths according to recent data. The rise in drug-related deaths is due in large part to an increase in overdoses from prescription painkillers. This is the first time drugs have caused more deaths than motor vehicles since the government started tracking drug deaths in 1979.

An estimated 37,485 Americans died from drug-related causes in 2009, double the rate of 10 years ago. Traffic-related fatalities have been on the decline for decades, as auto safety continues to improve. Between 2000 and 2008, drug-related deaths more than doubled among teenagers and young adults.

Fueling the surge in deaths are prescription pain and anti-anxiety drugs that are potent, highly addictive and especially dangerous when combined with one another or with other drugs or alcohol. Among the most commonly abused are OxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax and Soma. One relative newcomer to the scene is Fentanyl, a painkiller that comes in the form of patches and lollipops and is 100 times more powerful than morphine. These drugs are now the cause of more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined.

A review of hundreds of autopsy reports in Southern California reveals one tragedy after another: a 19-year-old Army recruit, who had just passed his military physical, took a handful of Xanax and painkillers while partying with friends; a groom, anxious over his upcoming wedding, overdosed on a cocktail of prescription drugs; a teenage honors student overdosed on painkillers her father left in his medicine cabinet from a surgery years earlier; a toddler was orphaned after both parents overdosed on prescription drugs months apart.

Many died after failed attempts at rehab - or after using one too many times while contemplating quitting.

The seeds of the problem were planted more than a decade ago by well-meaning efforts by doctors to mitigate suffering, as well as aggressive sales campaigns by pharmaceutical manufacturers. In hindsight, the liberalized prescription of pain drugs "may in fact be the cause of the epidemic we're now facing," said Linda Rosenstock, dean of the UCLA School of Public Health.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sergeant Steve Opferman, who heads a county task force on prescription drug-related crimes, said prescription drugs can be dangerous because people believe they are safe, since they have been prescribed by a doctor. “Younger people believe they are safer because they see their parents taking them. It doesn’t have the same stigma as using street narcotics,” he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Los Angeles Times
 

Written by: Lisa Callaham, Substance Abuse Prevention Specialist
Posted: Jan 30, 2013 by Lisa Callaham

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