More and more people are dying from abusing or misusing drugs, including both prescription and illegal drugs, new research suggests.
In some groups, deaths from “accidental poisonings” - most the result of drug overdoses - are more than ten times higher than they were in the late 1960s, the study found.
While the notoriously drug-loving baby boomers account for part of the recent increase as they age and embrace prescription medications, death from accidental poisoning is higher across almost all age groups than it was a few decades ago, especially among white Americans. And the upward trend doesn’t appear to be leveling off.
“I went in expecting to see a blip (in increased accidental poisonings) with the baby boomer(s),” Dr. Richard Miech, the study’s lead author and head of Health and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Colorado Denver, told Reuters Health. After all, he said, “you’ve seen pictures of Woodstock.”
Miech was surprised that the boomer generation’s impact on the death rates was overshadowed by a “huge increase” in accidental poisoning deaths overall - an increase he attributes to the growing number of prescription drugs being taken in the United States by all age groups.
Miech and his colleagues analyzed data from the U.S. Census, which counts all people in the country, as well a register that tracks the number of deaths from different causes every year. Putting them together, the researchers could calculate the percentage of people of different ages and races dying from accidental poisonings annually.
Overall, white men and women were more than nine times as likely to die from an accidental poisoning in 2005 through 2007 than they were in 1968 and 1969 according to the analysis, which is published in the journal Addiction. Black men and women were about three times more likely to die from the same cause in recent years than they were 40 years ago.
Because of changes in the body or changes in drug use, the greatest proportion of overdoses happen in people in their 40’s and 50’s - and that age group, which currently includes the tail-end of the baby boom generation, is where some of the biggest changes in poisoning rates over time showed up.
In 1968, for example, about one in every 100,000 white women in their early 50’s died from accidental poisoning. In 2007, 15 out of 100,000 did so. Among black women of the same age, accidental poisoning deaths during the same timeframes increased from about two people in 100,000 to almost 17 in 100,000. Both white and black men had even larger jumps.
While the increases weren’t quite as striking in younger adults, the study found that deaths from accidental poisonings are significantly higher for almost every age group. That trend that was particularly clear among white Americans.
Although the authors couldn’t tell what drugs were responsible for the most accidental poisonings, the majority of prescription drug abuse involves painkillers, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Vicodin (containing acetaminophen and the opiate drug hydrocodone) is the most commonly abused prescription drug in the U.S.
Such medications having become so common is likely one of the major drivers behind the increasing deaths, Miech said. According to a 2004 government report, almost half of all Americans take a prescription drug. With more prescriptions come more opportunities for people to get addicted, to take drugs that aren’t theirs, or to use drugs for non-medical purposes, all of which can have dangerous consequences.
Theodore Cicero, who studies drug abuse at Washington University in St. Louis, agrees. In general, he said, a certain percentage of the prescription drugs that are given to patients will be used for non-medical purposes. “Even if it’s a very small percentage, when the number of people (getting prescriptions) grows, obviously you’re going to have more drugs in the illicit market,” he told Reuters Health.
But it’s hard to tell someone with chronic pain, for example, that the risk of abuse or misuse isn’t worth a drug’s benefit, Miech said. And that leaves researchers and policy makers stuck.
What’s needed is for people to be more aware of the dangers these drugs pose, Miech said. Yet even with the deaths of celebrities like Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson, he pointed out, the public still hasn’t stopped to take a closer look at how prescription drug use can go wrong.
“You can, in fact, overdose on prescription meds just as easily as you can overdose on illegal drugs,” Cicero said. “Addiction is addiction no matter what the drug source is. That message has not yet come across.”
Death from prescription painkiller overdose has “been an epidemic in the last ten years,” Dr. Wilson Compton, director of the Division of Epidemiology, Services and Prevention Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told Reuters Health.
But figuring out how to stop prescription drugs from ending up in the wrong hands is harder than it looks. The government, Compton said, can’t encourage people to flush their extra drugs down the toilet - that could harm the environment - and pharmacies aren’t set up to take them back.
Miech has the same fears. “Ultimately, I don’t have any silver bullets to come up with a way to reduce this huge increase” in deaths from accidental poisoning, he said.