Prescription Drug Overdose: An Epidemic

Janie RitterBy Janie Ritter
Director of Wisconsin Safety Council

For the first time since World War II, motor vehicle crashes have lost their reign as the leading cause of unintentional death for Americans ages 25-64. Deaths due to poisoning recently moved to the top.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a poison as “any substance that is harmful to your body when ingested (eaten), inhaled, injected or absorbed through the skin. If the person taking or giving a substance did not mean to cause harm, then it is an unintentional poisoning.”

Dr. Donald R. Teater discusses the history, use and abuse of opiates and how it can affect businesses in a November, 2014 talk to Wisconsin Safety Council teams.

The CDC also reports that nearly 9 out of 10 poisoning deaths are caused by drugs; with 75 percent derived from the use and misuse of pain medications; mostly from opium. Commonly known as opioid analgesics, opioids and narcotics, these drugs carry generic names such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone and morphine. Popular brand names include OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin. Mixing prescription pain medication with alcohol and/or over-the-counter pain medications increases the risk of a fatal overdose.

Prescription pain medications, including opioid pain relievers, are used to reduce pain most often from ailments, injuries and surgeries. Along with the pain relieving benefits are risks of misuse, addiction and death. A number of factors have contributed to the increase and widespread availability of these powerful drugs including criticism that physicians were not adequately treating pain, and the introduction of extended-release opioid pain relievers for the treatment of moderate to severe pain. Now, approximately one in 25 adults are receiving treatment of chronic pain with opioid pain relievers. The increase in prescriptions for pain medications resulted in an abundance of these medicines being kept in home medicine cabinets. The accessibility to these drugs has increased the opportunity for theft or misuse.

Who is most at risk? Consider this:

  • From 2000 to 2010, the drug poisoning death rate increased for both males and females, all races and ethnicity groups, and all age groups. The rate of death in females increased 103 percent; males increased 80 percent.
  • From 2000 to 2010, drug poisoning death rates increased nearly 140 percent for non-Hispanic whites, compared to non-Hispanic blacks.
  • Since 2004, the drug poisoning death rate is highest among 45-54 year olds.
  • From 2009 to 2010, the largest age-specific increase in death rate was among 55-64 year olds, with a nearly 10 percent increase.

How does Wisconsin compare? Wisconsin ranks 33rd in the country for age-adjusted drug poisoning death rates, at 10.9 per 100,000.

The Wisconsin Safety Council (WSC) is dedicated to keeping Wisconsin workers safe. WSC, along with the National Safety Council and many leading employers nationwide, focus attention on issues affecting workers not only on-the-job but off-the-job. Studies show that a much greater number of employees are injured outside of the work environment.

Ways to help eliminate the risk of opioid misuse in your home:

  • Place all opioid pain medication containers in a locked and secure place to eliminate any chance of access by a family member or visitor to the home. More than 70 percent of people who abused prescription pain relievers report obtaining them from friends or relatives.
  • Use medications only as prescribed.
  • When a pain reliever is no longer needed, dispose of it properly through a community disposal program.
  • If an individual suspects or knows a family member or friend is abusing prescription drugs, encourage that person to see a doctor or an appropriate health care facility to begin treatment.

Action for Employers:

  • Educate employees.
  • Expand use of drug testing to include prescription drugs.
  • Modify health insurance policies and agreements that may contribute to over-prescribing.
  • Develop new processes to monitor the use and misuse of drugs involved in worker’s compensation claims. Non-medical use of prescription painkillers costs health insurers up to $72.5 billion annually in direct health care costs.
  • Become an advocate/supporter for community disposal
  • programs.

Follow WSC on Twitter @WISafetyCouncil

This column originally appeared in the April 2014 edition of Wisconsin Business Voice.