Pill-Popping Epidemic in NYC

Prescription painkiller overdose deaths have drastically increased in NYC

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) The word “epidemic” is being used to describe the rising number of prescription painkiller overdoses - perhaps rightfully so, as painkiller overdoses have crept into the top 10 causes of death.

A recent study looked at overdose deaths in New York from 1990 to 2006. Researchers found that deaths from prescription painkillers have increased seven-fold since 1990.

The authors recommended that law enforcement groups, healthcare professionals and community intervention services develop targeted strategies to combat the rising tide in painkiller overdose deaths.

"Connect with Narcotics Anonymous for support."

Magdalena Cerdá, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York, led an investigation into deaths associated with prescription painkiller use in New York.

Prescription painkiller overdose deaths were greater than deaths from heroin and cocaine combined in 2002, greater than suicide deaths in 2006 and greater than car and motorcycle accident deaths in 2009, according to study authors.

For this study, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City (NYC) provided the records on prescription painkiller overdose deaths from 1990 to 2006.

Researchers divided prescription painkillers into two opioid categories: analgesics, like oxycodone, and methadone, which is often prescribed to help people get off heroin.

Results showed that deaths from analgesic overdoses went from 4 percent in 1990 to 16 percent in 2006. Deaths from methadone overdoses went from 16 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2006.

Rates of overdose with methadone were relatively equal among whites, blacks and Hispanics. Whites were twice as likely as Hispanics and three times more likely than blacks to overdose on analgesic painkillers.

For analgesic painkillers, 40 percent of deaths occurred in people aged 35-44 and 28 percent in people aged 45-54. Only 26 percent of deaths occurred in people 34 years old and younger.

Heroin was also involved in 45 percent of analgesic and 40 percent of methadone overdose deaths. Cocaine was found in 46 percent of analgesic and 53 percent of methadone deaths. Antidepressants were found in 37 percent of both types of opioid overdose deaths.

The researchers also accessed legal prescription sales of oxycodone and noted a nine-fold increase in sales over the 15-year period. The overall prescription opioid death rate increased seven-fold over that 15-year period.

To reduce rates of these overdose deaths, the authors recommended improving interventions for drug abusers, specifically towards white, middle-aged males, who in the highest risk category.  Law enforcement targeting of drug traffickers, prescription monitoring programs to reduce "doctor shopping" and education of healthcare providers about prescription drug abuse and overdose risks were also recommended. 

This study was published in January in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supported funding for this study. No conflicts of interest were found.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
February 7, 2013
Last Updated:
August 19, 2013