Prescription Pain Killer Deaths Outnumber Heroin, Cocaine Overdoses

Rebekah Eliason for – Your Universe Online

Reports from a new study at McGill University indicate that there are a greater number of deaths from commonly prescribed painkillers than from heroin and cocaine overdose combined. This study is the first of its kind and highlights a huge public health issue.

Death from prescribed painkillers has dramatically increased in recent years with 16,000 US deaths in 2010. In per capita opioid consumption, the United States and Canada rank first and second.

“Prescription painkiller overdoses have received a lot of attention in editorials and the popular press, but we wanted to find out what solid evidence is out there,” says Nicholas King, of the Biomedical Ethics Unit in the Faculty of Medicine.

For this study, King and his team set out to identify and summarize available evidence to perform a systematic review of the existing literature regarding painkiller overdose. The team did a comprehensive survey of scientific literature and only included reports that contained quantitative evidence.

“We also wanted to find out why thousands of people in the U.S. and Canada are dying from prescription painkillers every year, and why these rates have climbed steadily during the past two decades,” says King. “We found evidence for at least 17 different determinants of increasing opioid-related mortality, mainly, dramatically increased prescription and sales of opioids; increased use of strong, long-acting opioids like Oxycontin and methadone; combined use of opioids and other (licit and illicit) drugs and alcohol; and social and demographic factors.”

Professor Kind adds, “We found little evidence that Internet sales of pharmaceuticals and errors by doctors and patients–factors commonly cited in the media — have played a significant role.”

According to the researchers this study suggests there is a complicated “epidemic” where physicians, users, the health care system and the social environment all hold responsibility.

“Our work provides a reliable summary of the possible causes of the epidemic of opioid overdoses, which should be useful for clinicians and policy makers in North America in figuring out what further research needs to be done, and what strategies might or might not be useful in reducing future mortality,” says King. “And as efforts are made to increase access to prescription opioids outside of North America, our findings might be useful in preventing other countries from following the same path as the U.S. and Canada.”

This study was published in the American Journal of Public Health.