More Americans die from a drug overdose than in car accidents, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Over the past three decades, the number of drug poisoning deaths has increased sixfold, from about 6,000 deaths in 1980 to more than 36,500 deaths in 2008 — a rise fueled by a surge in prescription painkiller overdoses. The CDC says that deaths from prescription painkillers have reached “epidemic” levels over the past decade, now accounting for more overdose fatalities than heroin and cocaine combined.
A big part of the problem is nonmedical use of prescription painkillers like oxycodone and Vicodin: in 2010, about 12 million Americans aged 12 or older reported misusing prescription painkillers in the previous year. The CDC and the Obama administration suggest that improving the way these powerful drugs are prescribed, and enhancing prescription drug monitoring programs can help prevent continued misuse of the medications and curb the overdose death rate. Healthland’s Maia Szalavitz advocates for making a proven anti-overdose treatment more widely available, rather than cracking down on all doctors who prescribe the drugs and endangering legitimate pain patients who need relief.
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