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Drug Overdose Deaths Rising; Public, Candidates, Media Indifferent

Sep 23, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Although deaths from workplace and motor vehicle accidents have declined by about 19% in the last 15 years, deaths in the community and at home have risen 44%, said Janet Froetscher, president and CEO of the National Safety Council.  Also, deaths from accidental drug overdoses have increased dramatically, with prescription painkillers the main culprit, according to research presented at today’s Council meeting.

Froetscher reported that increased home and community death rates were most obvious in falls by the elderly and poisoning deaths.  According to the Council, poisoning deaths include accidental overdoses from prescription drugs, illicit drugs, other solids and liquid substances, and gases and vapors.  Although "The perception is that it's kids getting into the medicine cabinet," said Froetscher, that is not the case.

In 2006, about 24,000 people died in the U.S. from accidental drug overdoses, she said. That's a 100% increase from 2000.  But, the greatest increase was seen in accidental poisonings among men and women of working age, 20 to 64, mainly as a result of abusing prescription pain medicines such as oxycodone, methadone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, and buprenorphine.  Also, the greatest area of growth in accidental poisoning deaths in the past ten years was seen in patients aged 45 to 64, followed by 25- to 44-year-olds and then 15- to 24-year-olds, according to Froetscher.

Over 38 percent of all overdosing deaths were linked to prescription opiods, said Froetscher, who cited Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, with cocaine accounting for approximately one-quarter of all opiod-related deaths, heroin and other illicit drugs accounting for 14 percent, and other and unknown drugs for 22.5 percent.  Also, approximately 60 percent of those who used painkillers for nonmedical purposes received their drugs from a friend or family member.

In the Council’s keynote address, William Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education and the first "drug czar" under the first President Bush, called for greater awareness of the growing drug abuse problem, including the problem with painkillers, saying “Not too many years ago, we got drug use down."  Bennett added that we need to shift our attention back to this problem and that the media, the public, and the current political candidates have become indifferent to this issue.  Bennett also cited a recent drug bust at San Diego State University in which 96 people, including 75 students, were arrested for a stash of drugs and guns. Bennett claims that this story did not receive the press it would have in the past, "If this happened in the '80s it would have been on the cover of Time or Newsweek," he noted.  

"Drug abuse is not getting the attention it deserves in an election year," Bennett added. While both Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate John McCain's wife, Cindy, have talked publicly about their past experiences with drugs, neither party's candidates have used the experiences as a "teachable moment," Bennett said.

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