Tech + Health

05.25.14

Prescription Drugs More Deadly Than Car Accidents, Guns, and Suicide

America, we’ve got a problem: More than 100 people die each day in the U.S. because of prescription drugs.

America is in the throes of a prescription drug epidemic. More people die every day from that addiction than gunshot wounds, car accidents, or suicide—with 100 people losing their lives daily as a result of misusing medication.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse has some pretty shocking statistics detailing just how bad America’s addiction has become. For example: the US, which holds 5 percent of the world’s population, is responsible for 75 percent of global prescription drug use; 52 million people over the age of 12 have used this medication for purposes outside of what they are intended for; enough painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult every four hours for a month; over half of these pills are obtained for free from a friend or family member; there are 5.1 million abusers of painkillers, 2.2 million who illegitimately take tranquilizers, and 1.1 million needlessly popping stimulants.

America, we’ve got a problem.

Painkiller addiction is also a well-known celebrity health hazard, with the likes of Winona Ryder, Jamie Lee Curtis, Matthew Perry, Charlie Sheen, and dozens more attributing their downward spirals to dependence on drugs including OxyContin, oxycodone, and Vicodin. There’s also a major concern that Hollywood’s predilection for prescription drugs in some way glamorizes their use, making it seem as though this is a trend people should be jumping on the back of and subsequently pushing their doctors for unnecessary pills in a bid to emulate their screen idols.

And it’s not just an issue limited to the young and aimless: over 300,000 seniors in the US are misusing their medication. Mel Pohl, director at the Las Vegas Recovery Center, said:  "There's this growing group of seniors, they have pain, they have anxiety … and a lot of (doctors) have one thing in their tool box—a prescription pad. The doctor wants to make their life better, so they start on the meds."

Once that first set of medication has been prescribed, though, patients’ tolerance of and resistance to it grows, and they begin to ask for increasing amounts of pills. “Without anyone necessarily realizing, it begins a downward spiral with horrible consequences" Pohl explained.

The U.S., which holds five percent of the world’s population, is responsible for 75 percent of global prescription drug use.

The stats on drug abuse at the hands of America’s older generations make for worrying reading: 55 million prescriptions for opioids were written for over-65s in 2013, a 20 percent increase over five years. Emergency room visits by over-55s for pharmaceutical misuse more than doubled between 2007-2011—and there is more damage than ever before being caused to seniors’ lives as a result.

With the country sinking ever further into a prescription drug-induced haze, one state has decided to fight back. Distressed by the addiction’s prevalence, two Californian counties have begun legal proceedings against five of the country’s biggest manufacturers of narcotics, accusing them of waging a ‘campaign of deception’ against patients and doctors. In Santa Clara and Orange counties, particularly high numbers of emergency room visits and overdose deaths (an estimated one every other day in OC) have prompted officials to sue Johnson & Johnson's Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Actavis, Endo Health Solutions Inc., Teva Pharmaceutical Industries' Cephalon Inc. and Purdue Pharma.

The suit claims that the companies push patients to ask their doctors for painkillers as treatment for ordinary afflictions such as headaches, and that medical officials are being manipulated into prescribing these pills widely in spite of the heavy risks associated with using narcotics. "California is suffering disproportionately from this problem, so it is appropriate for this state to take up this hammer," said University of San Diego School of Law professor and former deputy district attorney Robert Fellmeth.

The 100-page legal document filed against these companies accuses them of employing further deceptive tactics to ensure widespread prescriptions of their drugs, namely selecting leading physicians they believed to be influential—and paying them off—to communicate the benefits of certain pills to their fellow doctors through policy papers and speeches. The ongoing marketing campaign undertaken by the narcotics makers ‘deprived California patients and their doctors of the ability to make informed medical decisions and, instead, caused important, sometimes life-or-death decisions to be made based not on science, but on hype,’ the lawsuit reads.

Given the dramatically rising number of prescription drug-induced deaths across the US, the need for a legal investigation into their distribution has never been more necessary. If these companies are found guilty of any kind of misconduct, the ramifications will be enormous, and sure to spawn future lawsuits from bereaved families who lost loved ones because of Big Pharma’s even bigger marketing drive. This could be the crucial first step in turning America’s pill popping fortunes around.