(NaturalNews) A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that the overprescription of narcotic painkillers is still a major problem in the United States.
The report, published on July 1, is based on data collected by retail pharmacies, which fill the majority of US prescriptions. It found that 259 million prescriptions for narcotic painkillers were written in 2012, roughly one for every adult living in the United States.
Forty-six deaths a day
Narcotic painkillers, which are opioid-based painkillers such as morphine, oxycodone and hydrocodone, are intended primarily for the short-term treatment of moderate to severe pain following surgery or serious injury. The drugs are highly addictive and pose a significant risk of fatal overdose.
According to the CDC, 41 percent of the 41,000 drug overdose deaths recorded in 2011 involved prescription painkillers. Approximately 46 people die from prescription painkiller overdoses in the United States every day.
"Overdoses from opioid narcotics are a serious problem across the country and we know opioid overdoses tend to be highest where opioids get the highest use," CDC director Tom Frieden said. "[Narcotics] can be an important tool for doctors to use... but they are not the answer every time someone has pain."
Prescription rates of opioid painkillers vary widely from state to state, the report found, from a low of 52 prescriptions per 100 residents in Hawaii to a high of 143 prescriptions per 100 residents in Alabama. The state with the second highest prescription rate was Tennessee, followed in descending order by West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Louisiana. In addition to Hawaii, states with lower than average rates included California and New York.
The findings are consistent with prior studies, which found that doctors in the South tend to prescribe all drugs at higher than average rates, including antibiotics and stimulants for children. Research has shown that this differential prescription rate cannot be solely explained by higher disease rates.
Policy changes get results
The CDC report encourages states to revise their policies in order to bring down narcotic prescription rates. In an accompanying report, the state of Florida notes its own success in achieving those goals.
In 2010, the CDC ranked Florida as perhaps the top state for prescription drug abuse in the nation. An explosion of "pill mill" clinics between 2003 and 2009 led to Florida having 98 out of the 100 top oxycodone-prescribing doctors and a surge in painkiller-related deaths.
Florida implemented a number of reforms, including new regulations on pain clinics (which led to the shutdown of 250 pill mills) and a new system for monitoring prescription drugs. Between 2010 and 2012, deaths from opioid overdoses dropped 27 percent, while oxycodone-related deaths dropped an astonishing 52.1 percent. Due to the prescription-monitoring system, death rates from other prescription drugs (such as the anxiety drug alprazolam) also fell. Early data suggest that death rates may have continued to fall in 2013.
"These changes may well represent the first well-documented, substantial decline in drug overdose mortality in any state in the past 10 years," said CDC Director Tom Frieden. "There was a real decline in not just prescription opioid deaths, but all drug overdose deaths, including illicit drugs."
The report authors noted that not all of the decreased mortality was necessarily due to Florida-specific reforms. For example, the same time period saw the introduction of a new oxycodone formula designed to be more abuse-resistant. Nevertheless, Florida's decrease in drug-related deaths was much greater than that seen in other states.
"The take-home message is that the problem needs to be attacked from several different angles," said report co-author Hal Johnson, a consultant for the Florida Department of Health.