Someone dies every 19 minutes in the United States from a prescription painkiller overdose, making the abuse of controlled medications the fastest growing drug problem in the country, according to federal researchers.
Deaths from prescription narcotic overdoses have more than tripled during the past decade, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and about 15,000 prescription narcotics users now die annually nationwide of the habit
"Every day someone is dying from opioid abuse in Nassau and Suffolk counties, I kid you not -- every day," said Dr. Thomas Jan, a Massapequa addiction expert and member of the Nassau County Heroin and Prescription Drug Task Force.
Friday's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report is based on data from 2007, said Dr. Leonard Paulozzi, lead author of the analysis. He and other experts say that prescription drug abuse has worsened in recent years.
The report, which appeared in Friday's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a CDC publication, said men of a wide range of ages, mentally challenged people and recreational drug users are among the profiles of those who often abuse painkiller medications.
The sheer number of narcotic pain pills in the pharmaceutical supply chain has helped fuel the epidemic, the report and experts say. The production of painkiller medications increased 600 percent between 1997 and 2007, largely to meet the medical community's demand to treat chronic pain.
In 1997, according to the report, there was an equivalent of 96 milligrams of morphine per person available nationwide. That amount jumped to the equivalent of 700 milligrams per person by 2007.
The 700 milligrams is the equivalent of every person in the United States being able to consume a typical dose of Vicodin (hydrocodone and acetaminophen) every four hours for three weeks.
"Hydrocodone is the most widely prescribed drug in the United States," said Paulozzi.
In about 20 years, he said, the number of painkiller medications has grown to meet an increasing demand. "Now we have multiple opioid analgesics just like we have multiple statins to lower cholesterol," he said.
The problem of prescription drug overdoses is so acute on Long Island, Jan said, that he routinely carries a rescue kit equipped with the medication Narcan. When injected into the shoulder or thigh of an overdosing addict, Narcan prevents death from excessive opioid use.
Most people addicted to pharmaceutical-grade opioids, Jan added, think of them as "safer" than heroin because they're medications, not recreational drugs.
Chemically, the pharmaceuticals and street drugs are strikingly similar.
"Prescription opioids are very closely related to heroin," said Wynne Schiffer, a neuroscientist and expert in the effects of opioid drugs on the brain at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset.
"You often see young adults who go back and forth between prescription medications and street drugs," Schiffer added.
Jan, meanwhile, does not blame pharmaceutical companies for the vast number of opioid medications in the supply chain. Addiction and subsequent overdoses, he said, are a problem of physicians who write the prescriptions.
"The pharmaceutical companies wouldn't produce that much medication if there wasn't a prescription for it. My pad, the prescription pads of my fellow physicians are the controlling source."
Rates of painkiller drug misuse and overdose deaths are highest among men, people between the ages of 20 and 64 and non-Hispanic whites.
People with mental illnesses are overrepresented among those prescribed painkillers and those who overdose on them.
Two populations at high risk of opioid abuse and overdose deaths are the 9 million people prescribed the drugs long term and the 5 million who report using the drugs for nonmedical purposes.
Patients of greatest concern to medical policymakers are those who seek care from multiple doctors and are prescribed high daily doses. They account for a large proportion of opioid overdoses.