Health groups and even politicians have called the problem of prescription drug abuse in the United States an epidemic. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that more Americans died from overdoses of prescription painkillers than from cocaine and heroin combined.
A study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence gives a snapshot of the impact of the abuse in an urban area. Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that, in a 16 year period, prescription opioid drug overdoses increased seven-fold in New York City.
Researchers speculate that the reason for the immense increase may have been due to easy accessibility and the misconception that prescription drugs are safe to use.
Rise in Analgesic Overdoses
The urban study revealed that deaths from prescription analgesics, like the painkiller OxyContin (Oxycodone), had risen sharply between 1990 and 2006 compared to deaths associated with methadone, a prescription opioid used to treat heroin addiction.
Heroin overdoses used to be one of the greatest concerns for drug overdose, yet this study found that prescription painkillers had become the new danger of which to be aware. Deaths by painkiller overdoses were seven times higher in 2006 than they were in 1990. Heroin overdoses actually declined. The number of methadone overdoses did not dramatically fluctuate.
The Face of Drug Abuse
The face of a stereotypical “drug abuser” has changed as prescription drug abuse becomes more common. In the urban center of New York City, researchers revealed the most recent faces of those most commonly found to abuse drugs in the 1990 to 2006 study:
- White males: Three times as many white males died from prescription opioids than black males and two times as many had fatal overdoses as Latinos. In the 16-year study, white deaths increased nine-fold. Black deaths decreased by 2 percent.
- Higher income families
Why the Increase in Fatalities?
As researchers studied the data, they speculated as to why there was a dramatic rise in deaths of white males from drug overdoses. Magdalena Cerdá, DrPH, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, speculated that the white group and higher income families may have had more access to healthcare which allowed them more access to prescription drugs. She did add, though, that those who become addicted often get their first drugs illicitly.
There is a false sense of safety that many Americans have about the use of prescription drugs. Some people believe that prescription opioids are safer than taking other drugs. They believe that if a doctor prescribes it, it must be safe. The research team from Columbia believes that greater restrictions on prescription opioids and better education about its risks could help reduce the climbing numbers of fatalities.