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Drugs Now Kill More Americans Than Traffic Accidents (and It’s Not the Illegal Ones That Are to Blame)

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For the first time in history, documented drug-related fatalities outnumber traffic-related fatalities in the U.S., the Los Angeles Times reports. The number of drug-related deaths has increased significantly in the last decade due largely in part to skyrocketing rates of prescription drug overdoses. Public health experts say that prescription drug addiction is reaching epidemic proportion in the U.S., fueled by more liberal prescribing practices for pain and anxiety medications in conjunction with aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies.

The Los Angeles Times explored the epidemic in detail and revealed some staggering statistics. Here are some alarming take-aways:

  • In just 2 years (from 2007-2009), prescriptions for the strongest painkillers increased by 43% in California
  • Between 2000 and 2008, drug-related deaths more than tripled among people aged 50-59
  • The highest fatalities were found among people in their 40s
  • Hydrocodone, also known as the narcotic, Vicodin, is prescribed more frequently than even the most popular cholesterol-lowering statin drug
  • Overdose deaths from painkillers tripled between 2000 and 2008
  • A life is lost to prescription drug malpractice and/or misuse every 14 minutes in the U.S.

A skeptic might say that the results from comparing drug-related deaths and traffic fatalities are to be expected, given the money and energy that have been invested in improving automobile safety over the last 30 years. However, while auto-related deaths have in fact declined, prescription-related deaths have nearly doubled in just the last decade.

A related infographic shows the disturbingly steady increase of drug-related deaths from 2000-2008. In 2000, nearly 50% of U.S. states had fewer than 6% occurrences. By 2008, not a single state in our country fell below 6.45%, with West Virginia and New Mexico topping the charts with more than 26% of deaths per 100,000 residents being a drug-related fatality.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many drug-related deaths are caused by accidental overdose. Such accidents often occur when recreational use turns fatal or when elderly patients forget whether or not they’ve taken medication and, consequently, double their dose. Other causes include suicides as well as adverse side effects caused by taking prescription drugs.

So how can public health policy turn this sinking ship around? Between the increasing black market demand for prescription drugs and lack of support from the industry contributing to the problem, Big Pharma, health officials face quite a challenge.

Compare the issue at hand to auto safety. Not only does auto safety research benefit public safety, there is increased monetary value that comes along with it. Auto safety research stands to benefit the economy due to the cost of equipment, required innovation (job creation) and an increased value of the finished product.

Prescription drug safety measures, on the other hand, may have fewer private sectors eager to support education and ethical prescribing practices. In the eyes of Big Pharma, such measures stand to negatively impact their soaring product sales.

One suggested initiative is to educate physicians on how to safely prescribe medications (something that isn’t stressed in many medical school curriculums). But we have to wonder how effective such an effort would be, with the carrots of monetary compensation and other “perks” that are dangled in front of doctors by the pharmaceutical companies.

What do you think would be the most effective way to approach this growing problem? And who is responsible for turning it around? Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

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9 responses to “Drugs Now Kill More Americans Than Traffic Accidents (and It’s Not the Illegal Ones That Are to Blame)”

  1. Brigitte says:

    Hold prescribing physicians responsible for drug-related deaths in cases less egregious than that of Michael Jackson’s physician Dr. Murray — and in cases where the victim is not a celebrity. BME

  2. Pheem527 says:

    Legalize marijuana

  3. Yarnknitter says:

    Make it illegal to accept perks from pharmaceutical companies.  Where is integrity today?

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