Awash in Prescription Meds

Both DEA and CDC consider the prescription painkiller explosion an epidemic.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration held its third National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day just before Halloween 2011, collecting an enormous haul of unwanted or expired prescription meds -- 377,086 pounds (188.5 tons) of them were dropped off at 5,327 take-back sites around the country. From the three Take-Back Days combined, DEA and partner organizations have taken 498.5 tons of meds out of circulation since September 2010.

The November 2011 issue of CDC's Vital Signs provided a scary snapshot of prescription drug overdoses in America. A chart showed sales of prescription painkillers, overdose deaths per 100,000 people, and treatment admissions per 10,000 people have risen fast since 1999. Nationally, fatal overdoses more than tripled from 1999 to 2008, while the quantity of prescription painkillers sold to pharmacies, hospitals, and doctors’ offices quadrupled between 1999 and 2010, according to CDC.

Both agencies consider this an epidemic. "The amount of prescription drugs turned in by the American public during the past three Take-Back Day events speaks volumes about the need to develop a convenient way to rid homes of unwanted or expired prescription drugs," DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart said. "DEA remains hard at work to establish just such a drug disposal process and will continue to offer take-back opportunities until the proper regulations are in place. With the continued support and hard work of our more than 3,945 state, local, and tribal law enforcement and community partners, these three events have dramatically reduced the risk of prescription drug diversion and abuse and increased awareness of this critical public health issue."

According to CDC, many states report problems with "pill mills," where doctors prescribe large quantities of painkillers to people who have no medical need for them. The latest data show Florida has the highest level of prescription painkiller sales per resident and Illinois the lowest among all states. States ranked higher in sales per person and in non-medical use tend to have more overdose deaths, CDC says.

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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