Statistics reveal a prescription drug epidemic


  • Author: Carlos Alberto Gómez Grajales
  • Date: 26 March 2014
  • Copyright: Image appears courtesy of iStock Photo

The sudden death of US actor Philip Seymour Hoffman last month brought to mind other recent deaths of high profile figures from drug overdoses - Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, Whitney Houston and Cory Monteith. Their tragically early deaths are the results of a recent epidemic that has spread throughout the United States: the abuse of prescribed pharmaceutical drugs.

thumbnail image: Statistics reveal a prescription drug epidemic

Unlike the commonly known illicit drugs, many people believe that prescribed medications are safe. They are packed and sold in pharmacies, so there's no risk in using them, right? I mean, a doctor can prescribe them, so what's the harm? The problem, as usual, comes from misinformation. Certain types of medications, particularly Opioids and Benzodiazepines can be addictive and its use in combination with alcohol or other drugs may become a lethal mix, as witnessed by these famous stars in recent years. But to grasp the real dimension of the problem, we statisticians recommend looking at the numbers.

In the United States, drug overdose was the leading cause of injury death in 2010. Amongst people aged between 25 and 64 years old, drug overdose caused more deaths than motor vehicle traffic crashes. And it is getting worst. Since 1999, there has been a 102% increase in deaths due to drug overdose in the country. This number includes deaths related to both licit and illicit drugs, yet breaking the data reveals some dramatic results. Of the 38,329 drug overdose deaths recorded that year, 22,134 were related to pharmaceutical drugs. That means that 60% of all drug overdose deaths were related to substances that you can readily buy in a pharmacy.

Two types of pharmaceutical drugs are mainly responsible for this statistic. The first types are the Opioids - psychoactive chemicals that resemble morphine or other opiates in its pharmacological effects. They are used mostly as painkillers and anesthetics. Prescription opioids are killing Americans at more than five times the rate that heroin is, according to the most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The second type of prescription drug mostly associated with accidental overdose are Benzodiazepines - again, psychoactive drugs that have sedative, hypnotic (sleep-inducing), anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), euphoric, anticonvulsant, and muscle relaxant properties . As such, Benzodiazepines are popular medications, useful in treating anxiety, insomnia, agitation and seizures, with common names such as Xanax, Valium and Ativan. Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, Whitney Houston and Philip Seymour Hoffman were all found with traces of Benzodiazepines in their bodies when they died.

Although it may be shocking to learn of the dead of famous Hollywood stars, they are just victims, part of a larger epidemic that predates the United States.

Of the 22,134 deaths relating to prescription drug overdose in 2010, 16,651 involved opioid analgesics, with 6,497 involving benzodiazepines. This means that opioids were present in 75% of these deaths and benzodiazepines in 30% of these cases. Note that the sum is higher than 100% due to cases where both types of drugs were consumed.

However, that number refers to the episodes that ended tragically. The reality shows that more people than ever are having problems controlling the amount of medication they take. In 2011, in the U.S., about 1.4 million visits to Emergency Departments involved the nonmedical use of pharmaceuticals. Amongst those, about 35% were related to anti-anxiety and insomnia medications, i.e. Benzodiazepines. Another 30% of visits were related to the abuse of opioid analgesics.

Some studies suggest that certain demographic groups are more inclined to the abuse of medical substances. The elderly are particularly at risk, due to the reduced resistance of their bodies and because it is common at that age to consume a high number of medications simultaneously (4). Men in general are more likely to die of overdose, as well as people in the range of 45 to 49 years of age. Philip Seymour Hoffman fell in that age group, as well as Whitney Houston. The cost of the epidemic is also quite remarkable. In the United States, prescription opioid abuse costs were about $55.7 billion in 2007 (5). Of this amount, 46% was attributable to workplace costs, 45% to healthcare costs, and 9% to criminal justice costs.

Although it may be shocking to learn of the deaths of these famous stars, they are just victims, part of a larger epidemic that predates the United States.



1) Drug Overdose in the United States: Fact Sheet – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

2) Opioids – Wikipedia.

3) Benzodiazepine – Wikipedia

4) Elderly Patients Routinely Prescribed Risky Drugs – The New York Times

5) Birnbaum HG, White AG, Schiller M, Waldman T, Cleveland JM, and Roland CL., 'Societal costs of prescription opioid abuse, dependence, and misuse in the United States', Pain Medicine, 2011.

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Published features on are checked for statistical accuracy by a panel from the European Network for Business and Industrial Statistics (ENBIS)   to whom Wiley and express their gratitude. This panel are: Ron Kenett, David Steinberg, Shirley Coleman, Irena Ograjenšek, Fabrizio Ruggeri, Rainer Göb, Philippe Castagliola, Xavier Tort-Martorell, Bart De Ketelaere, Antonio Pievatolo, Martina Vandebroek, Lance Mitchell, Gilbert Saporta, Helmut Waldl and Stelios Psarakis.