Home » News » ‘Epidemic’ of Painkiller Overdoses Kills More Than Heroin, Cocaine

‘Epidemic’ of Painkiller Overdoses Kills More Than Heroin, Cocaine

Epidemic of Painkiller Overdoses Kills More Than Heroin, CocaineThe death toll from overdoses of prescription painkillers has more than tripled in the past decade, according to an analysis released yesterday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new report shows that more than 40 people die every day from overdoses involving prescription narcotic pain relievers such as hydrocodone (Vicodin), methadone, oxycodone (OxyContin), and oxymorphone (Opana).

“Overdoses involving prescription painkillers are at epidemic levels and now kill more Americans than heroin and cocaine combined, ” said CDC Director Thomas Frieden, M.D., M.P.H.

The increased use of prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons, along with growing sales, has contributed to the large number of overdoses and deaths, he noted.

In 2010, 1 in every 20 people in the United States ages 12 and older — a total of 12 million people — reported using prescription painkillers nonmedically, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Based on the data from the Drug Enforcement Administration, sales of these drugs to pharmacies and health care providers have increased by more than 300 percent since 1999.

“Prescription drug abuse is a silent epidemic that is stealing thousands of lives and tearing apart communities and families across America,” said Gil Kerlikowske, Director of National Drug Control Policy.

“Health care providers and patients should be educated on the risks of prescription painkillers. And parents and grandparents can take time today to properly dispose of any unneeded or expired medications from the home and to talk to their kids about the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs.”

In April, the administration released a comprehensive action plan to address the national prescription drug abuse epidemic. Titled “Epidemic: Responding to America’s Prescription Drug Abuse Crisis,” the plan includes support for the expansion of state-based prescription drug monitoring programs, more convenient and environmentally responsible disposal methods to remove unused medications from the home, education for patients and healthcare providers, and support for law enforcement efforts that reduce the prevalence of “pill mills” and doctor shopping.

So far, 48 states have implemented state-based monitoring programs designed to reduce doctor shopping while protecting patient privacy. Additionally, the Department of Justice has conducted a series of takedowns of rogue pain clinics operating as “pill mills,” CDC officials said.

President Obama has also signed into law the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act, which allows states and local communities to collect and safely dispose of unwanted prescription drugs. According to CDC officials, the DEA has collected more than 300 tons of unneeded or expired prescription drugs over the past year.

“Almost 5,500 people start to misuse prescription painkillers every day,” said Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Administrator Pamela S. Hyde. “Just like other public health epidemics, community-based prevention can be a proven, life-saving and cost-effective key to breaking the trend and restoring health and well-being. ”

Prescription painkiller death rates among non-Hispanic whites and American Indians/Alaska Natives were three times those of blacks and Hispanic whites. In addition, the death rate was highest among persons aged 35-54 years.

Overdoses resulted in 830,652 years of potential life lost before age 65 years, a number comparable to the years of potential life lost from motor vehicle crashes and much higher than the years of potential life lost due to homicide, according to CDC officials.

For its analysis, CDC reviewed state data on fatal drug overdoses, non-medical use of prescription painkillers, and sales of prescription painkillers to pharmacies and health care providers.

The study found:

  • State death rates from overdoses (from 2008 data) ranged from a high of 27 deaths per 100,000 people in New Mexico to a low of 5.5 deaths per 100,000 people in Nebraska;
  • Nonmedical use of prescription painkillers ranged from a high of 1 in 12 people aged 12 and older in Oklahoma to a low of 1 in 30 in Nebraska. States with more nonmedical use tend to have more deaths from drug overdoses;
  • Prescription painkiller sales per person were more than three times higher in the highest state, Florida, than in the lowest state, Illinois. States with higher sales per person tend to have higher death rates from drug overdose.

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

‘Epidemic’ of Painkiller Overdoses Kills More Than Heroin, Cocaine

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). ‘Epidemic’ of Painkiller Overdoses Kills More Than Heroin, Cocaine. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 2 Nov 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.