Although its death rate from prescription drug overdoses has more than doubled since 1999, Minnesota has a better handle on this serious public health problem than most other states.
For, according to a new national report about prescription drug abuse in the United States, Minnesota’s overdose mortality rate for these drugs was 7.3 per 100,000 residents in 2010 — a rate that was the 47th lowest among all other 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The report, published Monday by the health-advocacy group Trust for America’s Health, found that Appalachia and the Southwest had the highest rates of deaths from prescription-drug overdoses in 2010. West Virginia, for example, topped the list with 28.9 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents.
The Midwest had the lowest rates. North Dakota was at the very bottom of the list, with 3.4 overdose deaths per 100,000. Other neighbors of Minnesota — South Dakota (6.3/100,000), Iowa (8.6/100,000) and Wisconsin (10.9/100,000) — were also ranked low.
There was some good news nationally in the study: The number of people aged 12 and older abusing prescription drugs decreased by about 12 percent between 2010 to 2011, from 7 million 6.1 million. The report suggests that the decrease is due to more states taking a comprehensive approach to the problem.
A deadly epidemic
But the problem remains immense, as statistics in the report show. About 6.1 million Americans currently abuse prescriptions drugs. The most common of these abused drugs are opioid “painkillers” (such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin), sedatives and tranquilizers (used to treat anxiety and sleep problems), and stimulants (used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy).
Since 1999, deaths from prescription-drug overdoses have doubled in 29 states, tripled in 10 and quadrupled in four. Those deaths now exceed 16,000 each year, outnumbering ones from heroin and cocaine combined.
Since 2009, prescription drugs have surpassed traffic-related accidents as the leading cause of injury death in the United States. Prescription-drug abuse and misuse is also responsible for about 475,000 patient visits to hospital emergency rooms each year.
As the new report also points out, the cost to the U.S. economy is enormous: The nation spends an estimated $53.4 billion annually on prescription-drug-abuse-related lost productivity, increased criminal justice costs, drug abuse treatments and medical complications.
Strategies for curbing the abuse
The report looked at 10 strategies public-health officials believe to be effective in reducing prescription-drug abuse, such as expanding Medicaid coverage to include substance-abuse treatment and requiring a physician to conduct a physical exam and/or screening for drug abuse before prescribing prescription medications.
Only New Mexico and Vermont had all 10 strategies in place. Most states had implemented six or fewer.
Minnesota scored fairly well on these strategies. It has instigated eight of them, according to this report. Missing are a law that lessens the criminal penalties for drug-abusers who agree to seek treatment and one that gives the family and friends of drug abusers easier access to naloxone, a non-addictive prescription drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
An urgent need for action
The report also makes several recommendations to help states reduce prescription-drug abuse. Those recommendations include improving prescription-drug monitoring programs, ensuring access to substance abuse services (including expanding access to naloxone), ensuring responsible prescribing practices by physicians, and expanding public education.
Such actions, the authors of the report conclude, are urgently needed. As I’ve pointed out here before, however, any efforts to restrict the prescription of these drugs — opioids in particular — are up against some serious pushback from the pharmaceutical industry. A lot of money is at stake, for this class of drugs is a huge profit-maker. As the New York Times pointed out last year, the annual sales of prescription painkillers in the U.S. rose from $4.4 billion in 2001 to $8.5 billion in 2011.
You can download and read the Trust for America’s Health report at the organization’s website.