A Shocking Call For Reform: Surpassing Car Crashes, Drugs Are Now #1 Cause of Accidental Death

Rather than stay up late worrying about their teenage children driving home safely, parents may start hoping their kids wake up in the morning. 

For long, car accidents were the number one cause of accidental death.  But new data shows that in 2009, drugs caused more deaths than traffic accidents for the first time since the Census started recording the data in 1979. In 2009, drug overdoses killed about 37,500 Americans, many of whom had taken a cocktail of pills or mixed prescriptions with alcohol or other drugs. Car accidents, on the other hand, took 33,800 lives that year. 

The new statistic is alarming.  Car accidents are terrifying because they come out of nowhere, snatching a life in a second on a day when everything should be okay.  Drug overdoses, however, are often considered the inevitable consequence of poor life choices. But the wrong combination of pills, or pills and alcohol, can take a life - any life - just as quickly and unsuspectingly as a car crash.   Many people would be surprised to hear that pills kill more people than heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine combined.

Prescription pills like opioids (OxyContin, Vicodin) for pain and benzodiazepines (Xanax, Klonopin) for anxiety are changing the drug scene.  With nearly half of all Americans taking at least one prescription drug, the overmedication of America has generated global attention, at least partially because America is one one of only two countries (New Zealand) to allow direct-to-consumer drug advertising.   Our familiarity with pills means they do not hold the same stigma as drugs like cocaine or ecstasy. Parents may leave their prescriptions in a what seems to be an appropriate location - the medicine cabinet.  But few would keep a vial of heroin, OxyContin's street equivalent, in the same spot. 

This comfort with pills has made them one of the most used drugs, second only to marijuana, in America. Taken together, the statistics surrounding the widespread use of pills, and their propensity to kill, should be a cause for alarm.  Pills are not just snatched from legitimate prescriptions, and addicts are not typically patients who started using pills for medical reasons.  Rather, pharmaceutical companies market their drugs, often as safer than they really are, as was the case with OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma.  Then, corrupt doctors looking to make extra cash hand out hundreds of pills to addicts or dealers who turn around and put them into a street market.  But every year, the FDA must okay the number of pills a company wants to manufacture.  With emergency rooms and clinics cutting back on narcotics to curb problems with abuse, perhaps it is time the FDA take a similar step.

But simply removing drugs from the market will not cure the problem.  Oxy addicts often turn to heroin because it is cheaper.  What's more, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine's recent report, addiction is a chronic, primary disease that affected persons will live with for a lifetime. And the behaviors associated with drug addiction - the ones the justice system often punishes - are symptoms of the disease, not effects of the drugs or characteristics that lead to addiction.  If we continue to punish addicts for suffering from an illness, we will only watch as the number of addicts and deaths pile up. 

But treatment is available.  Suboxone and methadone help to fight opioid addiction, and naloxone is an opioid-overdose reverser available only on  a prescription basis.  Should access to these medications, as well as addiction counseling, be expanded, we may see the death rate drop.  But for tax payers to support such incentives, the stigma behind drug addicts must be removed.  And despite the science that shows addiction is a primary diseases (not triggered by anything, including poor wil power) and the statistics that show it is killing hundreds of thousands of people a year, close-mindedness and the desire to punish sufferers of a disease stops many Americans from receiving the health care they require. Ultimately, as we see now, they die as the result. 

AlterNet / By Kristen Gwynne

Posted at September 20, 2011, 9:21am

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