Overdose death rates from prescription painkillers are rising much faster in middle-age women than men, with the trend more pronounced in Oklahoma than in most states, according to a national report released Tuesday.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report shows deaths from prescription painkillers, which they list as including Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone), Opana (oxymorphone) and methadone, increased fivefold nationwide among women and 3.6 times for men between 1999 and 2010. More people died of prescription painkiller overdoses than car crashes since 2007. These painkiller overdoses killed four times more people than cocaine and heroin overdoses combined in 2010.
Oklahoma overdose death rates are growing faster than national rates. According to the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the prescription painkiller death rate among men in Oklahoma rose from 56 in 1999 to 296 in 2010; for women, the rate jumped from 29 in 1999 to 204 in 2010.
Prescription drug abuse is Oklahoma's fastest-growing drug problem, Mental Health Commissioner Terri White said. It's hard to pinpoint why Oklahoma ranks so high, but the state has consistently had a long history of chronic drug abuse.
“Women and men often get medication because they have real pain, but then it turns into addiction,” White said.
Oklahoma was among a half-dozen states with the highest prescription drug overdose death rates in 2009-10, at 15 to 18.5 deaths per 100,000 people. Nationally, 15,323 women died from such overdoses.
A previous study showed Oklahoma as the top state for the nonmedical use of painkillers and ninth for fatal painkiller abuse.
Female overdose death rates are highest among American Indians, Alaska Natives and non-Hispanic whites from 45 to 54 years of age, the CDC report showed.
Women are more likely than men to be prescribed painkillers, given higher doses and use them for longer periods because of chronic pain, White said. They also are more likely to become dependent on such painkillers after taking them for legitimate reasons.
“There's less stigma around prescription drug abuse than there is around other sorts of drugs,” White said.
“Meaning someone who would never consider trying methamphetamine or cocaine or heroin may be willing to try a prescription drug because it's medicine and their perception is it's safer.”
What's being done?
Oklahoma is trying to fight the problem.
The Legislature approved $1.2 million, to go into effect this week, for a prescription drug prevention and treatment program through the Department of Mental Health, White said.
The money is a small amount to fight such a large problem throughout the state, White said. It will be used to improve statewide data collection on prescription drug use and to improve drug prevention and treatment programs.
The misuse of prescription drugs largely contributed to poisoning being the leading cause of unintentional injury death in Oklahomans age 25 to 54, according to the 2011 State of the State's Health report.
Of drug-related deaths in Oklahoma, 81 percent involve prescription drugs, whereas cocaine and heroin make up only about 10 percent. Prescription drugs are easier to obtain and less costly than other drugs, Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control spokesman Mark Woodward said.
Prescription drug abusers generally go about getting pain pills one of three different ways, Woodward said. They commit prescription fraud and seek pain medication from multiple medical professionals for illegitimate reasons, steal from the medicine cabinets of relatives or friends, or buy pills on the street.
Oklahoma's real-time prescription drug tracking system still doesn't completely stop people from doctor shopping, Woodward said. While the Oklahoma Schedule II Abuse Reduction digital system records prescriptions within five minutes of them being filled, addicts find ways around it with multiple forms of identification, personal prescription pads or by giving fake names.
“They're not recreational drug users, but over time it just ends up taking over their lives,” Woodward said.