When a drug is purchased from a pharmacist, and not a street corner, there's a temptation to think it is perfectly safe.
But a recent report from a national nonprofit group shows prescription drugs, particularly painkillers, cause more fatal overdoses than heroin and cocaine combined.
And their use is pervasive all over the country, including Connecticut. The continued misuse of these drugs might be due in part to a misconception about how dangerous they are, said Ingrid Gillespie, president of the Connecticut Prevention Network.
"Young people in particular think `Well, they're prescribed, so they're safe,'" said Gillespie, also director of the Lower Fairfield County Regional Action Council in Stamford. "A lot of people don't know how harmful they can be."
A report released by the Trust for America's Health shows that drug overdose deaths jumped 12 percent in Connecticut between 1999 and 2010.
The majority of these deaths were linked to prescription drugs. Connecticut was also one of 29 states (and Washington, D.C.) where drug overdose deaths exceeded motor vehicle deaths in 2010. Yet the state fared better than most others, with the 13th lowest rates of drug overdose deaths of all the states.
About 50 Americans die from prescription painkiller overdoses each day, and the medications are responsible for more than 16,000 deaths and 475,000 emergency department visits a year.
Nationwide, the number of drug overdose deaths doubled in 29 states between 1999 and 2010. They quadrupled in four states and tripled in 10 more.
Gillespie said there are multiple reasons that prescription drug abuse continues to be a major public health concern. In addition to the perception that such medications are less dangerous than other drugs, factors might include the wide availability of prescription meds, particularly opioids.
Commonly referred to as painkillers, these often contain addictive substances, such as oxycodone. The TFAH report showed that sales of prescription painkillers per capita quadrupled from 1999 to 2010, and that enough prescription painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult continually for a month.
Gillespie said there's a mindset in our culture where "if something ails you, you take a pill."
"People often don't mean to become addicted to these medications," she said. "They start taking them after a sports injury or something else. All of a sudden, they find that they're addicted to these medications."
"There's been a problem with prescription drug abuse by medical professionals for quite some time," he said.
There are some signs that more people are understanding the risks of these medications. The TFAH report mentions that the number of Americans abusing prescription drugs decreased from 7 million in 2010 to 6.1 million in 2011.
Still, efforts to control misuse of these medications continue. Earlier this year, Connecticut was one of four states selected to participate in a national effort to look at ways to turn the tide of prescription drug abuse. Staff from consumer protection, the state department of public health and other agencies traveled to Washington, D.C., to discuss possible solutions to this particular drug problem.
Gadea said Connecticut has long looked at ways to prevent abuse. In 2011, the state began encouraging towns and cities to offer drug take-back boxes at police departments.
The idea is to get people to bring unwanted and unused medication to be properly disposed. This keeps it out of the home, where it could be misused and abused -- either by the person for whom it was prescribed, or other members of the household, including children and adolescents.
About 40 communities have the drop boxes, including Greenwich, Brookfield, Ridgefield, Ansonia and Shelton. Other communities host drug take back days once or twice a year, which also allow people to safely toss their medications.
Connecticut has taken other anti-drug measures, as well -- a fact that's highlighted in the TFAH report.
The study laid out 10 recommended strategies for preventing prescription drug abuse, and rated the states on how many of them they put in place. Connecticut has implemented eight of the 10 measures, including having a prescription monitoring program.
The program collects prescription data for certain drugs into a central database, which can be accessed by doctors and pharmacists. Theoretically, health professionals could use this information to determine whether a patient's use of certain drugs is suspicious.
However, doctors aren't required by state law to use the database, as they are in 16 other states.
Gillespie said the state needs to continue beating the drum to stem abuse, particularly when it comes to changing the way people look at prescription drugs.
"There needs to be more education that painkillers can be addictive," she said.
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