Anti-anxiety drugs including Valium were among common causes of medication-related deaths, involved in almost 30 percent of them. Among the medication-related deaths, 17 percent were suicides.
The report’s data came from death certificates, which aren’t always clear on whether a death was a suicide or a tragic attempt at getting high. But it does seem like most serious painkiller overdoses were accidental, said Dr. Rich Zane, chair of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
The study’s findings are no surprise, he added. “The results are consistent with what we experience” in ERs, he said, adding that the statistics no doubt have gotten worse since 2010.
Some experts believe these deaths will level off. “Right now, there’s a general belief that because these are pharmaceutical drugs, they’re safer than street drugs like heroin,” said Don Des Jarlais, director of the chemical dependency institute at New York City’s Beth Israel Medical Center.
“But at some point, people using these drugs are going to become more aware of the dangers,” he said.
Frieden said the data show a need for more prescription drug monitoring programs at the state level, and more laws shutting down “pill mills” — doctor offices and pharmacies that over-prescribe addictive medicines.
Last month, a federal panel of drug safety specialists recommended that Vicodin and dozens of other medicines be subjected to the same restrictions as other narcotic drugs like oxycodone and morphine. Meanwhile, more and more hospitals have been establishing tougher restrictions on painkiller prescriptions and refills.
One example: The University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora is considering a rule that would ban emergency doctors from prescribing more medicine for patients who say they lost their pain meds, Zane said.