Poisoning, primarily by drugs, kills more people than car accidents, making it the nation’s biggest injury-related cause of death, said a report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Nationwide, 13.3 people per 100,000 died from poisoning between 2007 and 2009, compared with 12.4 from motor-vehicle accidents during the same period, the report found. In Maine, the poisoning death rate was 14.8, compared with 12.1 fatalities per 100,000 for motor-vehicle accidents. More than 90 percent of unintentional poisoning deaths in 2007 were caused by drugs and medicine, the report said. Each year, injuries create $406 billion in lifetime costs for medical care and lost productivity, according to the report.
Researchers identified a new set of injury threats, including concussions in school sports, bullying, auto accidents while texting, falls by aging baby boomers and a “dramatic, fast rise in prescription drug abuse.” Sales of prescription painkillers and related deaths have tripled since 1999, according to the report.
“Motor-vehicle accidents are more dramatic and get more coverage, but poisoning happens every day,” said Jeff Levi, who heads the Washington-based trust. “As we’ve seen poisoning from prescription drugs reach epidemic levels, it’s time to raise it on the radar screen.”
From Washington to Maine, states have passed or are considering laws designed to better regulate prescription drugs. Deaths from prescribed pain relievers have exceeded the number caused by cocaine and heroin combined, the report said. Forty- eight states have implemented, or have pending, programs meant to track prescriptions to keep buyers from visiting multiple doctors to get the same drug.
Last month, New Mexico, which has the highest poisoning death rate and injury-related fatality rate in the United States, made available online to providers its database tracking prescriptions. It’s also expanding a program created for heroin users to help pharmaceutical-drug addicts, Michael Landen, deputy state epidemiologist, said in a telephone interview.
“We have an epidemic of prescription-drug overdoses in this country, and in New Mexico and we need to reverse it,” Landen said. “As a society, we need to reduce sales of prescription drugs while at the same time ensuring patients in pain are getting treatment. It’s a tough balance, and we have to get that right.”
Striking that balance led to a political battle in Kentucky, which the report said has the seventh-highest poisoning death rate. Gov. Steve Beshear backed a bill this year that would have given him the authority to put the state’s prescription-monitoring program under the attorney general’s control so investigators would have access. The Kentucky Medical Association said doing so would violate patient privacy and push them away.
The bill passed in April without the provision. It requires doctors to take full medical histories before prescribing narcotic painkillers, among other regulatory enhancements.
“To have good pain control is essential, and anything that would hamper access to any medication would be a problem,” said Sharon Brigner, deputy vice president for state advocacy for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a Washington-based trade group. “These are not illicit drugs. These are drugs prescribed to patients for legitimate reasons.”