37,485 Annual Drug Deaths Are Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Are prescription medications really more dangerous than 4,000-pound machines that hurtle down the highway at 65 miles per hour? Today, they are. Drug deaths now outnumber traffic fatalities in the U.S., with prescription medications causing more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), deaths resulting from drugs have doubled over the last decade, now claiming one life every 14 minutes—37,485 people in 2009. Unfortunately, these 37,485 deaths are just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s difficult to examine “drug deaths” and “auto deaths” as separate entities; the two are inextricably interrelated. 18 percent of fatally injured drivers test positive for at least one drug. Not to mention that drunk driving fatalities account for 32 percent of all traffic deaths. These statistics show that a substantial portion of auto deaths are, in fact, drug deaths—examples of substance abuse’s insidious nature. And what about deaths from preventable diseases such as diabetes or heart disease—diseases that may have been worsened by surreptitious drug use or excessive alcohol consumption? The reality is that there are more “drug deaths” than we can imagine.

This isn’t even taking into account the astonishing numbers of living people in our country who currently use illicit drugs (22 million) or misuse alcohol (58.6 million binge drinkers). Substance abuse is a growing social problem in our nation, and it isn’t limited to the tragic deaths that the CDC is counting—it also affects our families, communities, and our criminal justice system. The rise in prescription drug abuse highlights addiction’s non-discriminatory nature; people from all walks of life, from partying teens to ailing grandparents, are abusing these drugs.

The primary reason that the number of traffic accidents has been dropping for decades – while drug deaths are steadily increasing – is prevention. The government has made major investments in auto safety measures, adding seatbelts and airbags and issuing public education campaigns on topics like driving sober, distracted driving, and child safety. Now, what about prevention for prescription drug abuse?

The government’s efforts to address the growing prescription drug problem have centered around supply regulation or control, with “take-back days” and some crackdowns on pill mills and pain clinics. Unfortunately, closing a respected pain clinic in order to decrease drug abuse is the equivalent of shutting down a local car dealer in order to cut down on traffic accidents; it mainly hurts the people who use their pills/cars safely. The risk-takers will just shop somewhere else, even if it’s a shady or illegal operation. Believe me, they’ll find a way; supply-side control can only go so far.

Whether popping pills or driving dangerously, risky behavior is all interrelated—and we must confront these issues through prevention, education, and personal responsibility. While regulating drug supply can be helpful, imposing heavy restrictions on legitimate pain clinics is not the answer; we will end up hurting individuals who desperately need prescription medications to manage their conditions. Instead, we should educate the public on the dangers of prescription drug misuse, educate doctors on how to prevent patients from crossing the threshold into addiction, and have screening and brief treatments readily available. The solution isn’t simply throwing away as many leftover pills as we can—it’s preventing addictions before they start.

By Howard Meitiner
President & CEO, Phoenix House

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