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More people die in America every year from prescription drug abuse than die from heroin and cocaine combined. That stunning finding comes in a new report Tuesday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC found a fourfold increase in deaths from prescription narcotics over the past decade. Not surprisingly, it coincides with a fourfold increase in the number of prescriptions written for the powerful painkillers.
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In 2008, the most recent year for which there are statistics, there were 20,044 overdose deaths from prescription drugs. Of those, 14,800 were from narcotic painkillers.
“Prescription overdoses are epidemic in the U.S.”, says Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC. Most people who die from prescription drug overdose are taking someone else’s medicines, he says. “Medicines that were left in the medicine cabinet. Medicines that were given to a friend or a relative. Maybe innocently, maybe maliciously.”
Prescription narcotics are being handed out almost like candy by doctors – some of whom are genuinely interested in patient care – others who run so-called “pill mills”, where narcotic prescriptions are traded for cash to feed addictions. The CDC study found that enough narcotics are prescribed every year to medicate each and every person in America every day for a month.
“It’s astonishing”, says Frieden. He adds that many addictions begin innocently, when patients are given narcotics for a minor injury that could be treated with less addictive medication. “When I went to medical school, we were incorrectly assured – don’t worry – if patients have short-term pain, they won’t get hooked. That was completely wrong, and a generation of doctors, patients and families have learned that’s a tragic mistake.”