scorecardThe Dark Side Of America's Rush Into Prescription Drugs Has Never Been More Obvious
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The Dark Side Of America's Rush Into Prescription Drugs Has Never Been More Obvious

The Dark Side Of America's Rush Into Prescription Drugs Has Never Been More Obvious
IndiaLaw Order2 min read


AP Photo/Toby Talbot

The prescription pain killer Vicodin.

The number of people in America who died from taking prescription pain killers quadrupled between 1999 and 2010, a new report from the Trust for America's Health says.

These fatalities now outnumber deaths from heroin and cocaine combined, that same report found. More than 12 million people said they abused prescription drugs in 2010. The only other drug people abuse more is marijuana, the White House noted in a 2011 report.

In a tiny Kentucky county of 12,000 people, nine people died in a nine-month period by taking pain killers they traveled to Florida to obtain, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.

"It's epidemic. I don't know what the answer is," coroner Robert J. Powell told the paper.

The abuse of prescription drugs - including pain killers like Percocet, sedatives like Valium, and stimulants like Ritalin - is often referred to as an epidemic. How did Americans get so hooked on prescription drugs in just a few decades?

The dramatic rise in prescription drug deaths in the aughts corresponds with a concerted effort in the late 1990s to find ways to treat chronic pain. In 1997, two expert panels issued guidelines encouraging doctors to prescribe more prescription pain meds to promote "compassionate care," according to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).



This graphic from the CDC shows that deaths from prescription drug abuse are just a small part of the crisis.

Congress then declared the period starting in January 2001 the "decade of pain control and research." Several "professional pain organizations" cropped up, including the American Academy of Pain Medicine and the American Pain Society, the American Academy of Family Physicians has noted.

A 2001 article in The New York Times Magazine called new standards for pain treatment "a critical watershed."

Pain management is "a field on the verge of an explosion," Dr. Daniel Carr told the Times' Melanie Thernstrom. ''There's no area of medicine with more growth and more public interest."

In the next few years, the number of prescriptions for pain medications shot up. Between 1997 and 2007, per capita retail purchases of methadone, hydrocodone, and oxycodone increased 13 times, four times, and nine times respectively, according to the JAMA article, which was cited by Health Policy Solutions. The vast majority of prescription drugs that are abused were legitimately prescribed by a doctor, according to the CDC.

People may think they're safe because doctors can prescribe them, but of course they're wrong. Prescription opioids act on the same brain receptors as heroin and can be very addictive.

These drugs make people euphoric. They can also slow down people's breathing. When people take more of an opioid to achieve the same level of euphoria, the CDC says, it can stop their breathing altogether.

A 19-year-old named Alec Torchon died in California last year at a college party after taking prescription drugs, NBC Bay Area reported this week.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't kick myself for not understanding the problem with prescription pain medication," his father, Ric Torchon, told NBC. "I wish I knew then what I knew now and I would have had a different conversation with my son."

Opioid addiction can ruin people's lives even if they don't die from overdoses. Prescription pain drugs can make people lethargic, rob them of their drive, and give them sleep apnea, The New York Times' Barry Meier wrote.

These drugs can also turn people into addicts who may do anything to get a fix.