According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, poisoning mortality rates in the United States increased each year from 1999 to 2004, rising 62.5 percent during the five-year period. The large majority of those deaths resulted from unintentional drug overdoses. By 2004, only motor-vehicle accidents were responsible for more unintentional fatal injuries than poisoning in the United States. The findings were released as part of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
According to the CDC, “Unintentional drug poisoning mortality rates increased substantially in the United States during 1999-2004. Previous studies, using multiple cause-of-death data, have indicated that the trend described in this report can be attributed primarily to increasing numbers of deaths associated with prescription opioid analgesics (e.g., oxycodone) and secondarily to increasing numbers of overdoses of cocaine and prescription psychotherapeutic drugs (e.g., sedatives), and cannot be attributed to heroin, methamphetamines, or other illegal drugs.” They added that “the mortality increases might be the result of greater use and abuse of potentially lethal prescription drugs in recent years.”
Overall, the rate of drug-poisoning deaths increased 68.3 percent, with the largest increases found among females (103 percent), whites (75.8 percent), Southern residents (113.6 percent), and the 15-24 age group (113.3 percent). The problem was most significant among rural populations. The number of accidental drug-overdose deaths rose from 11,155 in 1999 to 19,838 in 2004, a rise attributed to the prevalence of OxyContin (oxycodone) and Vicodin (hydrocodone).
The CDC utilized data from the National Vital Statistics System to produce the new report. The category of “unintentional poisoning deaths” included “overdoses of illegal drugs and legal drugs taken for nonmedical reasons, poisoning from legal drugs taken in error or at the wrong dose, and poisoning from other substances (e.g., alcohol, pesticides, or carbon monoxide).” (Drug overdoses accounted for about 95 percent of these fatalities.) The report notes that the rate of unintentional poisoning death more than doubled in 23 states.
The CDC recommends “strengthening regulatory measures to reduce unsafe use of drugs, increasing physician awareness regarding appropriate pharmacologic treatment of pain and psychiatric problems, supporting best practices for treating drug dependence, and potentially modifying prescription drugs to reduce their potential for abuse.” They also suggest that state “prescription-monitoring programs” should take a more proactive role in tracking both patients and doctors who abuse the prescription system.