Prescription Painkillers: The Deadliest Drugs of All
As a nation that has become addicted to pill-popping for every minor ache or pain, it's no surprise that painkiller prescriptions have nearly tripled in the past two decades.
But as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, fatal overdoses from painkillers are reaching "epidemic" levels - deaths from pain pills alone are surpassing fatalities from hard drugs like heroin or cocaine combined.
A Western world problem
In a study published in British medical journal The Lancet, researchers found that addiction to painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin are causing the greatest health burden and killing more people than illicit drugs.
Not surprisingly, wealthy nations like the U.S., Australia and the U.K. have the highest rates of painkiller abuse. In fact, enough pain pills were prescribed to Americans in 2010 to keep every U.S. adult medicated all day for an entire month, the research reports.
"According to the CDC, this is the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history," Dr. Andrew Kolodny, president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, told Al Jazeera America. "CDC has data demonstrating that around the same time doctors began aggressively prescribing these medications in the late 1990s, there have been parallel increases in rates of addiction."
A report issued earlier this year by government researchers found that rates for emergency department visits due to opioid drug overdoses are rising exponentially, while painkiller deaths among young women are also skyrocketing.
A labeling issue?
Kolodny said that tackling the painkiller problem can be turned around if doctors prescribed these drugs more "cautiously." But this can only be possible when the FDA changes labeling requirements on painkillers - current labeling practices are too broad, Kolodny said, because the drugs don't come with a suggested maximum dosage or recommended duration of use.
Kolodny believes that most painkiller prescriptions are unnecessary and, more than likely, an open door for addiction.
"Painkillers in many cases are actually ineffective in treating long-term pain," he noted.
FDA spokesperson Morgan Liscinsky said that the agency is working to address the misuse and abuse of prescription painkillers, and that they are "extremely concerned" about what is becoming "a major public health challenge for our nation."
According to 2011 congressional testimony from the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians, the U.S. consumes 80 percent of the world's painkiller supply.
The Lancet study estimates that half of the 78,000 worldwide deaths from illicit drug use in 2010 were due to opioid addiction.
Source: Al Jazeera America