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U.S. Painkiller, Sedative Overdoses Increasing

April 6, 2010

The same kinds of medications that resulted in the deaths of Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson have also become the second leading cause of accidental death among people in the United States, according to research published in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

In fact, a research team led by Dr. Jeffrey H. Coben of the West Virginia University School of Medicine has found that hospitalizations relating to prescription opioid, sedative and tranquilizer overdoses increased by 65-percent between 1999 and 2006.

“Deaths and hospitalizations associated with prescription drug misuse have reached epidemic proportions,” Coben said in an April 6 press release. “Prescription medications are just as powerful and dangerous as other notorious street drugs, and we need to ensure people are aware of these dangers and that treatment services are available for those with substance abuse problems.”

“It is essential that health care providers, pharmacists, insurance providers, state and federal agencies, and the general public all work together to address this crisis,” he added.

Coben and his team studied Nationwide Inpatient Samples (NIS) data, and using diagnosis codes, were able to discern all the cases of poisonings by drugs, medicinal, and biological substances, both intentional and unintentional. According to their findings, accidental overdoses for prescription painkillers, sedatives and tranquilizers spiked by 37-percent since 1999, while unintentional poisonings from other substances rose by 21-percent.

What is the reason for such a drastic increase?

“There is not any single cause,” Coben told Megan Brooks of Reuters on Tuesday. “There is increasing availability of powerful prescription drugs in the community and attitudes toward their use tend to be different than attitudes toward using other drugs, especially among young people, who report that prescription drugs are easy to obtain, and they think they are less addictive and less dangerous than street drugs like heroin and cocaine.”

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