In the age of prescription drugs and antidepressants, where drugs are administered over-the-counter without any major restrictions, more people are dying each year from medications than from traffic accidents. A recent L.A. Times article looked at the impact prescription drugs have upon American society, and their dangers if used in certain combinations.
In 2009, prescription drugs factored in the deaths of over 37,000 people. Less people died in motor vehicle accidents that year, which was a new phenomenon, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While most other causes of "preventable" deaths are declining, prescription drug-related deaths are increasing. According to The Times, the death toll due to prescriptions has doubled in the last decade, claiming a life approximately every 14 minutes. For concerned doctors, parents, and consumers, these deaths indicate a growing epidemic.Leading the death toll are pain-killers and anti-anxiety medications. These drugs are potent, highly addictive, and can be dangerous if combined with alcohol or other forms of medication. Commonly used drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax, and Soma now account for more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined. Fentanyl, a relatively new painkiller, is 100 times stronger than morphine.
Victims have ranged in age and circumstance, showing that drugs have affected people of all age groups. "Drug fatalities more than doubled among teens and young adults between 2000 and 2008," according to Times data. "Deaths more than tripled among people aged 50 to 69... [and] In terms of sheer numbers, the death toll is highest among people in their 40s." Some experts believe that millions of Americans now rely on over-the-counter medications due to doctors' over zealous attempt to alleviate a patient's pain through prescriptions, and the aggressive sales tactics of pharmaceutical companies. The Times stated that, "The number of prescriptions for the strongest pain pills filled at California pharmacies... increased more than 43% since 2007 - and the doses grew by nearly 50%..."
Steve Opferman, a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt., stated that, "In some ways, prescription drugs are more dangerous than illicit ones because users don't have their guard up. People feel they are safer with prescription drugs because you get them from a pharmacy and they are 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."
Nolan Smith, one of the thousands who have died of prescription overdose, was found on a stranger's porch, six months shy of his 16 birthday. The toxicology report revealed that Nolan had used a combination of Zoloft, anti-anxiety drugs, morphine, and marijuana.
Lori Smith, Nolan's mother, was told by authorities that kids now have parties where they will "throw a bunch of pills in a bowl and the kids take them without knowing what they are" - without knowing that some combinations are fatal.
According to The Times analysis, "Drug induced deaths had equaled or surpassed traffic fatalities in California, 22 other states, and the District of Columbia even before the 2009 figures revealed the shift at the national level."
The Centers for Disease Control analyzed the data from different drug-induced deaths and determined that most are the result of accidental overdoses; others are caused by intended suicides or adverse side-effects and fatal diseases caused by prescription drugs.
Many users believe prescriptions to be more reasonable than drugs such as cocaine or heroin. In some instances, however, an OxyContin addiction can be more expensive than a heroin one.
According to authorities, prescription drugs are sold in a variety of places other than pharmacies. Drugs are sold in Internet chat rooms or on a thriving black market. Undercover Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies bought "enough pills to fill a medicine cabinet" one weekday morning on a sidewalk.
The most widely prescribed drug in the U.S., hydrocodone (more commonly known as Vicodin), is also the most heavily abused. Officials have stated that the consumer desire for this drug is "insatiable."
The White House Office of National Drug Control announced an initiative in April to "stanch prescription drug abuse." One plan includes a series of drug take-back days, where consumers are encouraged to turn any left-over prescription drugs in to authorities. Another plan includes a training program designed to help physicians properly prescribe pain and anxiety medications - something that is not taught, to date, in med schools.