U.S. Drug Deaths Outnumber Traffic Fatalities

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Due to the rise in prescription drug abuse, the number of drug-related deaths in the U.S. now outnumbers traffic fatalities, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Although the number of deaths from most preventable causes is declining across the nation, the death toll from drugs is steadily rising.  Every 14 minutes, someone in America dies from drugs.

The abuse of prescription narcotic painkillers and anxiety medication has fueled the rise in drug deaths.  The most highly abused prescription drugs include Vicodin, OxyContin, Xanax and Soma.  An increasing number of people are also abusing Fentanyl.  All of these drugs are highly addictive and can be fatal when used in combination with alcohol or other drugs.  The number of deaths from these drugs outnumbers deaths from heroin and cocaine combined.

The Times report is based on preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  This data shows that in 2009, more than 37,000 died from drug overdoses (both accidental and suicide) and from fatal diseases cause by drugs.  In contrast, about 33,000 people died due to traffic accidents in the same year.  According to the Times, significant investments in automobile and highway safety have led to a steady decline in traffic fatalities.

Drug policy experts have not yet determined similar safety measures to stem the tide of drug fatalities.  Amy Bohnert, a researcher at the University of Michigan Medical School who is studying the risks of prescription drugs, admits that while today’s painkillers are a wonderful medical advancement for treating pain, we “haven’t figured out the safety belt yet.”

Drug fatalities are occurring in all age groups from teenagers to seniors.  The number of fatalities more than doubled for teenagers and young adults between 2000 and 2008.  During the same period, drug deaths more than tripled for people ages 50 to 69.  In terms of number, the age group with the most deaths was people in their 40s.

Public health experts are calling the abuse of prescription drugs an epidemic.  According to Linda Rosenstock, dean of UCLA’s School of Public Health, the liberalization of prescriptions for pain medication may be the cause of the current epidemic.  Over the past decade, many doctors have begun to write more prescriptions to alleviate patients’ pain and anxiety.

Aggressive sales tactics by pharmaceutical companies have also contributed to the problem.  In addition to obtaining these drugs by prescription, many people obtain them through the black market or from the medicine cabinets of friends and relatives.