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Opiate Painkiller ODs Now Top Those for Cocaine, Heroin

Many victims are addicts, not patients prescribed the drugs

MONDAY, July 24, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Opioid prescription painkillers cause more drug overdose deaths in the United States than either cocaine or heroin, a new U.S. study finds.

Opioid painkillers include oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, morphine and fentanyl. U.S. sales of these painkillers have increased over the past 15 years, and there's been a parallel increase in the number of deaths from the drugs, say researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2002, drug overdoses killed more than 16,000 people in the United States. Between 1999 and 2002, opioids surpassed both cocaine and heroin as a cause of overdoses.

The study, published in this week's issue of Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety, found that total unintentional overdose deaths increased 5.3 percent each year between 1979 and 1990, and by 18.1 percent per year between 1990 and 2002.

Between 1999 and 2002, the number of overdose deaths linked to opioids increased by 91.2 percent, the researchers said, compared to 22.8 percent for cocaine and 12.4 percent for heroin.

The findings should not cause unwarranted fear among doctors or patients about using opioids for controlling patients' pain, stressed the authors of an accompanying commentary.

Opioid abuse is most common among recreational and street drug users and people with psychiatric conditions, rather than pain patients, explained David Joranson and Aaron Gilson of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health Comprehensive Cancer Center, Pain & Policy Studies Group.

They noted that large quantities of opioid painkillers are stolen from pharmacies every year and that, "overdose deaths involving prescription medications does not necessarily mean they were prescribed. It is also crucial to know that most overdose deaths involve several drugs and these data cannot attribute the cause to a particular drug."

More information

The American Medical Association has more about opioid abuse.

SOURCE: John Wiley & Sons Inc., news release, July 24, 2006
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