Prescription Drug Deaths Soaring

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by Chad Garland, Cronkite News Service

More Arizonans died from drug overdoses than from car accidents in 2010, according to a report saying the state has the sixth-highest overdose rate.

Arizona was one of nine states with the fewest “indicators of promising strategies” to cut down on prescription drug abuse, said the report by the Trust for America’s Health.

The report said Arizona had 17.5 overdose deaths per 100,000 people in 2010, but had adopted only four of 10 possible strategies to reduce deaths. The report measured both prescription and illicit drug deaths.

“It’s at epidemic proportions,” said Tomi St. Mars, a registered nurse who runs the Arizona Department of Health Services Office of Injury Prevention.

St. Mars said researchers “don’t have a lot of evidence about what works and what doesn’t” with prescription drug abuse, a problem she said is “huge” in Arizona. But some of the strategies cited in the report — such as stricter ID requirements before dispensing drugs or a “good Samaritan” law to protect those seeking help for an overdose — could work here, she said.

Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health, said most of the states with the highest overdose death rates had enacted most or all of the 10 strategies recommended.

He said most of those state actions were “relatively new,” and the fact that policies were in place “didn’t necessarily indicate the degree to which they are implemented.”

Andrea Gielen, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, said prescription drug overdose “is a problem that’s come on the scene quickly” and researchers still have questions about the rise in prescription drug abuse. But statistics show drug deaths follow prescription levels.

Arizona ranked 13th in the U.S. for legal sales of opioid pain relievers and fourth for nonmedical use of prescription drugs in 2010-2011, according to the trust’s report.

St. Mars said her data shows that poisoning — which includes drug and alcohol overdoses — became the leading cause of injury-related death in Arizona in 2007. In 2011, it accounted for one injury-related death in four in 2011, she said.

The data also showed that overdoses of the prescription drugs oxycodone and hydrocodone were second only to alcohol as the cause of poisoning deaths.

St. Mars said her office has worked with hospital emergency rooms statewide to create guidelines to help cut down on prescription drug abuse. In two weeks, she said, the office will begin working with clinicians to develop similar guidelines for community-based settings.

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