Prescription Drugs Cause More Overdose Deaths Than Heroin and Cocaine Combined

prescription drug abuse deaths

08 Apr Prescription Drugs Cause More Overdose Deaths Than Heroin and Cocaine Combined

With the prescription drug abuse epidemic still in full force, it might not come as a surprise that the latest statistics show that prescription drugs cause more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined. The problem of prescription drug abuse has been growing since the 1990s, and in 2013, of the 43,982 deaths caused by drug overdose, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that 51.8 percent—22,767 people—died from prescription drug abuse. The fact that two illicit drugs often seen as causing the biggest problems in the country—heroin and cocaine—lead to fewer overdose deaths than the pills prescribed by doctors underlines the severity of the prescription drug epidemic.

Rise in Prescription Drug Overdoses

The number of overdose deaths linked to prescription drugs increased every year from 2001 to 2011, and although rates have been relatively stable from 2011 to 2013, the problem is still a significant one. In 2013, drug overdoses caused more deaths than motor vehicle crashes, and the majority were due to prescription drugs. Of all prescription drug deaths (22,767 individuals), opioid painkillers—like OxyContin and Duragesic—were responsible for over 71 percent. The number of poisonings from opioid painkillers alone increased from 4,030 in 1999 to 16,235 in 2013, more than quadrupling over the 14-year period.

Heroin and Cocaine Overdoses

For cocaine, overdose rates increased only slightly from 2001 to 2013, reaching a peak in 2006—with over 7,000 deaths related to cocaine—but remaining at around 4,000 through most of the period. However, despite a fairly rapid decline after 2006, the number of deaths in 2013 was still more than in the year 2000, with 4,944 overdosing on the drug.

For heroin overdoses, the data show a definite upward trend, particularly in recent years. In 2001, less than 2,000 people died from a heroin overdose, rising by around a thousand up to 2010, but then showing a sharp upward trend until 2013, when 8,257 people died as a result of a heroin overdose. From 2000 to 2013, the age-adjusted rate of overdose deaths almost quadrupled, going from 0.7 deaths per 100,000 population to 2.7 per 100,000. From 2010 to 2013 alone, the death rate per 100,000 from heroin overdose almost tripled.

Heroin and Cocaine vs. Prescription Drug Overdoses

Compared to the 22,767 people who died in 2013 due to overdoses on prescription drugs, the combined count for heroin and cocaine is 13,201. This means that not only do prescription drugs overall lead to more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined, but prescription opioids specifically—causing 16,235 deaths in 2013—also cause more deaths than both of these drugs combined.

The most troubling thing about the figures is the close relationship between the rise in prescription drug overdoses and the rise in heroin overdoses. Since prescription painkillers have largely driven the rise in prescription drug overdoses and these substances have a very similar effect on the brain and body to heroin, the correlation between the rates of overdose takes on additional significance.

The age-adjusted rate of overdose for prescription painkillers stopped increasing (and actually declined slightly) from 2010 to 2013, but over the same time period, the rate for heroin overdose almost tripled. This strongly indicates something that has been suggested by many other pieces of research: those who once abused prescription painkillers are switching over to heroin in large numbers, likely due to difficulty obtaining prescription drugs and their greater cost.

Changing Demographics of Drug Overdoses

There have also been some shifts in the demographics of those dying from drug overdoses in the U.S., and this is particularly marked for rates of death from prescription drugs and heroin. In 1999, the rate of prescription drug overdose death for Caucasians was 1.6 per 100,000, compared to 0.9 per 100,000 for African-Americans and 1.7 per 100,000 for Hispanics. In 2013, these same figures rose to 6.8 per 100,000 for Caucasians (an increase of over four times), 2.5 per 100,000 for African-Americans (a 2.8-fold increase) and up to 2.1 per 100,000 for Hispanics.

For heroin, in 2000, the highest overdose death rate was observed in African-Americans aged between 45 and 64. But despite the fact that their death rate also increased (from two per 100,000 to around five per 100,000), in 2013, 18- to 44-year-old Caucasians had the highest death rate by a significant margin, reaching seven per 100,000. It’s important to note, however, that increases in heroin death rates were observed for all races and all age groups from 2000 to 2013.

Again, these statistics paint a fairly clear picture. The biggest increase in the rate of both prescription drug overdose and heroin overdose was observed in Caucasians, suggesting—alongside the data discussed earlier—that the rising abuse of prescription drugs throughout the 2000s has begun to shift to heroin.

Epidemic Might Be Slowing, But It Might Just Be Shifting

The sheer number of deaths caused by prescription drugs is startling. But perhaps the most shocking aspect is the apparent shift from prescription drugs to heroin from 2010 to the present day. While increasing awareness of the risks, cracking down on lax prescribing, establishing prescription drug monitoring programs and other interventions seem to be helping with the prescription drug epidemic, it could be that many of these well-intentioned efforts aren’t really tackling the addictions at the core of the problem. The progress made so far is encouraging, but statistics like these are a reminder of why getting people into treatment for addiction should be the priority rather than simply making it more difficult for them to obtain their drugs of choice.

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