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America's rising prescription painkiller problem

Between 1999 and 2011, the number of Americans dying from opiates like prescription painkillers and heroin increased threefold: from 2.1 per 100,000 in 1999 to 6.9 per 100,000 in 2011, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Most of these deaths are linked to prescription painkillers, not heroin. Based on the latest available CDC data, prescription painkiller overdoses killed more people in 2010 than all illicit drug overdoses, including those from heroin and cocaine, combined.


The problem, drug and medical experts argue, is that doctors are prescribing painkillers much more than they did in the past — sometimes unnecessarily. This led more people to get addicted to the drugs, exposing them to more deadly overdoses as they try to get their fix.

Federal and state officials have responded to the increase by cracking down on so-called pill mills and other medical providers that leniently prescribe painkillers. The drawback with this response, according to a recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry, is that it's effectively pushing opioid addicts from prescription painkillers to heroin, because the crackdown made the legal opiates less accessible and affordable than their illicit counterpart.

"Although the 'high' produced by heroin was described as a significant factor in its selection," the researchers explained, "it was often used because it was more readily accessible and much less expensive than prescription opioids."

It seems, then, that the problem will require a more comprehensive solution than harsher enforcement. For those already hooked on opioids, rehabilitation services may be the more sensible solution.

Correction: A previous version of this post included a map about the rise of opiate-related deaths that was inaccurate. The map has been removed.