Scientists, Officials Eye Tools Aimed at Combating Abuse of Painkillers

Misuse and abuse of prescription opioid pain medications is a serious and ongoing public health crisis, with overdoses of such drugs resulting in more than 40 deaths per day in the United States.


January 04, 2012
Bridget M. Kuehn

With more than 40 deaths per day in the United States resulting from an overdose of prescription opioid pain medications, misuse and abuse of such painkillers represents a serious and ongoing public health crisis, according to officials from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

About 1.2 million emergency department visits in 2009 were related to misuse or abuse of pharmaceuticals, primarily opioid narcotics. That is a 98.4% increase in such events since 2004, noted a CDC report released in November (MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2011;60[43]:1487-1492). Such prescription drug–related emergency department visits now outnumber those involving illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine.

This ongoing problem led to the release in April of a report by the Obama administration’s ONDCP outlining a national plan for combating the problem (, including such measures as expanding state drug monitoring programs, establishing safe means for disposing of leftover opioid medications, stepping up law enforcement efforts, and boosting patient and provider education. Now officials from the ONDCP and CDC are urging states to strengthen their efforts to address the problem, and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has released a blueprint for continuing medical education programs aimed at boosting safe prescribing practices.

Additionally, scientists published the first randomized trial of treatment for prescription opioid dependence, suggesting long-term treatment with medication is often required.

“Overdoses involving prescription painkillers are at epidemic levels and now kill more Americans than heroin and cocaine combined,” said Thomas Frieden, MD, MPH, director of the CDC, in a statement. “States, health insurers, health care providers, and individuals have critical roles to play in the national effort to stop this epidemic of overdoses while we protect patients who need prescriptions to control pain.”

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