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Prescription Drugs Cause More Overdoses Than Heroin, Cocaine

Accidental drug overdoses from prescription pills have more than doubled in the past decade as deaths from illegal drugs decreased, a Florida study found.

Prescription medications were implicated in 76 percent of all overdose deaths in Florida between 2003 and 2009, while illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin were present in 34 percent of deaths, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Ten percent of overdoses came from a mix of both illegal and prescription drugs.

Unintentional poisoning is the second leading cause of injury death in the U.S. after automobile accidents, accounting for 29,846 deaths nationwide in 2007, the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, said. In 2007, the U.S. government began the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, a $9 million program that provides state funding for recording and monitoring prescription drug use.

“By 2009, the number of deaths involving prescription drugs was four times the number involving illicit drugs,” the report said. “These findings indicate the need to strengthen interventions aimed at reducing overdose deaths from prescription drugs.”

The number of annual deaths from lethal concentrations of prescription medicines increased 84 percent from 2003 to 2009, while deadly overdoses of illegal drugs fell 21 percent. Deaths from the narcotic painkiller oxycodone and anxiety medicine alprazolam, sold under the brand name Xanax, more than tripled.


“The sense is that the widespread availability of prescription drugs is causing people to switch from illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin,” Leonard Paulozzi, a medical epidemiologist at CDC’s Injury Center, said in a phone interview.

Paulozzi said most prescription overdoses were in men between the ages of 45 and 54.

Heroin death rates dropped 62 percent in the period. Cocaine overdoses increased until 2007, and declined in 2008 and 2009, researchers found. Methadone rates rose 79 percent, the study said.

The federal government spent $15.1 billion on the so-called War on Drugs in 2010, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Efforts to combat illegal drug use included prevention, treatment, law enforcement and interdiction.

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