Nearly 44,000 people die from drug overdoses each year, a figure that more than doubled from 1999 to 2013, and more than half of them stem from prescription pills.
The report from Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which was released Wednesday, ranks states on their actions to curb the most common causes of injury-related deaths — drug abuse, motor vehicle deaths, homicides, suicides, falls and traumatic brain injuries.
“Over 10 years, the opioid prescriptions have quadrupled, but there’s not a change in the overall pain that Americans had in that same period,” said Amber Williams, executive director of Safe States Alliance, an organization of experts who work on injury and violence prevention nationwide. “There’s definitely a mismatch between the prescriptions and the health issues because the issues have remained the same.”
Williams said these drugs, which in the past were used primarily for chronic pain or cancer treatment, are now being used for more treatments, leading to an increase in the prescription of opioids.
West Virginia, Kentucky and Nevada had the highest number of drug overdose-related deaths, according to the report. North Dakota saw the lowest rate: Only 2.6 per 100,000 people died from drug overdoses in a year. Overdose death rates have decreased in six states — Washington, North Dakota, Maine, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama.
In March, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released guidelines to address opioid-drug related overdose, death and dependence. The three-part strategy calls for more training and educational resources for health professionals making prescribing decisions, an increase in the use of naloxone, a drug that can prevent an overdose when taken correctly, and expanding access to medication assistance treatment.
The number of states that have “rescue drug” laws that allow prescription access to naloxone have doubled since 2013. Now 34 states and Washington, D.C., have laws that allow access to the drug and the FDA is meeting to discuss how public health groups may be able to expand use of the drug to reduce the risk of overdose.
The Centers for Disease Control is in the process of reviewing applications from states for new funding to help bolster states’ efforts to prevent prescription drug abuse, said Deb Houry, director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. The CDC will award 15 to 16 states $750,000 to $1 million each year for four years.
Houry said states will have to use the money to enhance their prescription drug monitoring programs and implement community or insurer/health system interventions to prevent prescription drug overdose and abuse.
Education for physicians about “overprescribing medication” and the dangers of prescribing opioids is just as important as educating consumers or those at risk of developing addiction, said Robert Lubran, a division director at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for Substance Abuse Prevention.
“SAMHSA’s surveys of households show that people tend to share these medications, and they usually get them from one physician,” Lubran said.
It’s easy to assume people dying from drug overdoses are hard drug users, but that’s not always the case, said Howard Josepher, a social worker and president and CEO of Exponents, a New York City-based drug treatment facility. He said a common issue his organization runs into is that people don’t realize the danger of mixing alcohol and drugs.
“Overdose isn’t just from heroin or opioids. Many times people are drinking or taking other kinds of drugs, and it isn’t an overdose as much as a drug poisoning issue,” he said.