Prescription Pill-Popping By Far a Leading Killer as Florida’s Drug Deaths Spike 20%
July 1, 2010
Oxycodone, the addictive prescription pain-killer also known by its Purdue Pharma brand name OxyContin, directly caused more deaths in Florida in 2009 than cocaine, heroin and morphine combined. Prescription drugs as a whole are killing far more Floridians than illegal drugs, with some 8,600 deaths last year involving at least one prescription drug, according to an annual report released today by the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.
That’s 5 percent of all deaths in Florida in 2009, when 171,300 people died in the state.
The number of people killed by prescription drugs is a significant 20 percent increase over last year’s 6,200 deaths attributed to overdoses. Much of the increase is due to a spike in oxycodone addiction. The increase in prescription-drug addiction continues a trend that began in Florida 10 years ago, when prescription drugs overtook illegal drugs as leading causes of drug-related deaths.
Alcohol is also included in the examiners’ analysis, and it leads the way of all drug-related deaths, with 4,046.
The annual report is a stark look at the effects of legalized drug addiction and over-prescription of drugs, both of which affect a far larger segment of the population than recreational or illegal narcotics.
For the first time in 2009, the commission tracked deaths by region. In Flagler County’s district, which includes St. Johns and Putnam counties, 22 deaths were attributed to oxycodone (the fourth lowest number in the state’s 23 districts), with 13 of those deaths directly attributed to the drug, and nine cited as being present among other drugs that contributed to death.
Hydrocodone claimed 16 lives in the district. Cocaine contributed to 19 deaths in the Flagler district, though only four cases were directly attributed to the drug. In 15 cases, cocaine was present in the body in conjunction with other drugs that proved lethal. Overall in Florida, cocaine-related deaths (including the majority of cases where cocaine wasn’t directly the factor but was present in the body at the time of death), have fallen from a peak of 2,179 in 2007 to 1,462 in 2009. (Again, cocaine was the direct result of death in 529 cases out of those).
Ken Kramer, a researcher with the Citizens Commission on Human Rights of Florida, says the numbers underestimate the extent of the problem, because medical examiners do not track deaths attributed to antipsychotic drugs or to antidepressants, both of which carry black-box or black-label warnings. The warnings on antidepressants, required by the Food and Drug Administration, state that the drugs increase the risk of suicidal thinking and behavior in children, adolescents and young adults up to age 24. (Antidepressants include Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, Effexor, Lexapro and Celexa.)
Anti-psychotic drugs carry a variety of black label warnings of increased mortality in elderly patients (including a death rate almost twice as high for people taking Risperdal, for example). Those drugs, prescribed and often overprescribed in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, include Abilify, Clozaril, Geodon, Risperdal, Seroquel and Zyprexa.
“Certainly, the actual number of prescription drug deaths is higher than the annual report states,” Kramer said. “It is unknown just how much higher because the Medical Examiners Commission does not track these classes of drugs.”
Two years ago Kramer got his concern heard by the commission following an email exchange with a commissioner in which he argued that antidepressants and anti-psychotic drugs’ contributions to mortality should be part of the annual report. He was rebuffed. One examiner vsaid he had not seen “more than the occasional death caused by these types of drugs,” according to the minutes of the Aug. 13, 2008 meeting of the commission.
Other findings in the 2009 report, which can be read in its entirety here:
- Prescription drugs tracked in the report account for 79 percent of all drug occurrences in deaths when alcohol is excluded.
- Deaths directly attributed to Oxycodone increased by 25.9 percent over 2008.
- Cocaine occurrences decreased by 18.4 percent over 2004.
- 5,275 individuals, or 7.1 percent more than in 2008, died with one or more prescription drugs in their system. The drugs in those cases were identified as both the cause of death and present in the deceased person.
- Overall, 171,300 deaths occurred in Florida in 2009.
The report specifies that the “state’s medical examiners were asked to distinguish between the drugs being the ’cause’ of death or merely ‘present’ in the body at the time of death. A drug is only indicated as the cause of death when, after examining all evidence and the autopsy and toxicology results, the medical examiner determines the drug played a causal role in the death.”