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Prescription painkiller deaths have skyrocketed in women, CDC says

Since 1999, the number of women who have died from overdoses of prescription opioids has increased 400 percent.

oxycodone pills
Of 15,323 women’s deaths from drug overdose in 2010, 6,631 involved opioid painkillers.

Although more men than women die of overdoses from prescription pain medications each year in the United States, women — particularly middle-aged women — are quickly catching up, according to a report published Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Prescription painkiller deaths have skyrocketed in women,” CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said at a news conference Tuesday. “Mothers, wives, sisters and daughters are dying of overdoses at rates we have never seen before.”

The CDC has already declared prescription drug abuse the fastest-growing drug problem in the country.

A 400 percent increase

Here are the disturbing statistics from the new report: A total of 15,323 women died of drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2010 (the most recent year for which the CDC has complete data). Of those deaths, 6,631 were known to have involved an opioid pain medication such as Oxycontin, Vicodin or Percocet.

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Since 1999, the number of women who have died from overdoses of prescription opioids has increased 400 percent.

By comparison, about 23,000 men died of drug overdoses in 2010, including about 10,000 deaths involving a prescription opioid — a 264 percent increase since 1999.

Both increases are troubling, of course, but the speed at which the rate for women is rising is particularly worrisome, notes the CDC.

“Since 2007, more women have died from drug overdoses than from motor vehicle traffic injuries,” the report points out, “and in 2010, four times as many died as a result of drug overdose as were victims of homicide.”

One of the most addictive substances

The report’s findings didn’t surprise Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director for youth services for the Minnesota-headquartered Hazelden Foundation, one of the leading substance-abuse treatment centers in the country.

Over the past 10 years, Hazelden has seen a threefold increase in patients with opioid addictions, Lee said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Prescription opioids “are right up there with the most addictive substances,” such as heroin, he added.

Lee pointed out that although men have historically had more problems with addictive substances than women, that trend is changing, perhaps because of additional social and cultural stressors.

“Maybe this is one of the setbacks that has been made from the great gains in gender equality,” he said.

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The CDC urges states to improve their monitoring of prescriptions for painkillers and to “pass, enforce and evaluate pill mill, doctor shopping and other laws to reduce prescription painkiller abuse.” The agency also recommends that physicians be more vigilant about following guidelines for responsible painkiller prescribing.

“These are dangerous medications and they should be reserved for situations like severe cancer pain where they can provide extremely important and essential palliation,” said Frieden at the press conference Tuesday. “In many other situations, the risks far outweigh the benefits.”

As I’ve pointed out here before, many physicians — and patients — are under the false impression that opioids have been proven safe and effective for non-cancer chronic pain, even though no well-designed long-term studies have ever been conducted on these drugs. Such misperceptions have led to the overprescribing and high-dose prescribing of painkillers.

The current epidemic of prescription pain-medication addiction in the U.S. has exacted a huge toll on the lives of individuals and their families. But the financial burden of this problem is also enormous. The CDC estimates that the non-medical use of prescription pain medications costs health insurers more than $72 billion annually in direct medical costs.

Drug companies have been pushing back, however, against attempts to restrict the prescription of opioid pain medications. Much is at stake for them, for this class of drugs is a huge profit-maker. As the New York Times pointed out last year, sales of prescription painkillers in the U.S. rose from $4.4 billion in 2001 to $8.5 billion in 2011.

The CDC report notes that enough opioid pain medications were sold in 2010 “to medicate every adult in the United States with the equivalent of a typical dose of 5 mg of hydrocodone every 4 hours for 1 month.”

Additional details

Here are a couple of additional statistics from the report:

  • The highest rate of deaths from prescription drug overdoses is among women aged 45 to 54 years. Among racial and ethnic groups, the highest rates were among non-Hispanic white women and Native American women.
  • A total of 943,365 women were treated in hospital emergency rooms for drug misuse or abuse in 2010. Prescription opioid painkillers were the fourth-most-common reason for those drug-related visits, behind cocaine, heroine and benzodiazepine (anti-anxiety drugs such as Valium and Xanax).

The report was published in the July 2 edition of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. It can be read in full, along with other information about the overuse and misuse of prescription opioids, on the CDC’s website.