Drug Overdose-Related Deaths Double from 1999 to 2012

A collection of pills
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The number of yearly deaths from drug overdoses in the United States more than doubled between 1999 and 2012, according to a new report.

In 2012, more than 41,000 people died of drug overdoses in the United States, compared with about 17,000 in 1999, according to the report released today (Dec. 2) by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, the report also found that the number of yearly deaths due to an overdose of opioid pain relievers, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, actually decreased 5 percent between 2011 and 2012.

Still, about 16,000 of the deaths in 2012 involved opioid pain relievers, according to the report.

There are a variety of reasons drug overdoses have increased over the past few years, said Rich Hamburg, deputy director of Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit organization that advocates for public health policies. Some of those reasons include increased availability of prescription drugs and the tendency for physicians to overprescribe, said Hamburg, who was not involved in writing the new report.

The report also found that the overall national drug-overdose death rate increased from an average of 6.1 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 to 13.1 deaths per 100,000 people in 2012. [The Drug Talk: 7 New Tips for Today's Parents]

In some states, the death rate was much higher. West Virginia had the highest rate, with 32 deaths per 100,000 people, followed by Kentucky (25 deaths per 100,00 people), New Mexico (24.7 per 100,00 people), Utah (23.1 per 100,00 people) and Nevada (21 per 100,00 people).

The rate of heroin-related deaths nearly tripled between 1999 and 2012, increasing to 1.9 deaths per 100,000 people in 2012. In 2012, almost 6,000 deaths were due to a heroin overdose, according to the report.

Hamburg said there might be a perception that prescription drugs are less dangerous than other drugs. But this can put people at higher risk for accidental overdoses.

There is no catchall solution to reverse the trend in drug-overdose deaths, Hamburg said. More education for both prescribers and patients is needed. Prescription monitoring is not mandatory in all states, and that makes it easier for patients to "doctor shop," and seek prescriptions from multiple doctors, he said.

Fear of liability may also play a role in why drug overdose deaths are so high. For example, people who give friends prescription drugs may be afraid to get those people medical attention when they need it, for fear of arrest, Hamburg told Live Science. Eliminating liability could help decrease death rates.

The new report includes overdose deaths caused by accidental overdoses, suicidal overdoses, homicide and undetermined intent. The CDC did not include drug overdoses if the death certificate did not say which types of drugs were involved.

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Kelly Dickerson
Staff Writer
Kelly Dickerson is a staff writer for Live Science and Space.com. She regularly writes about physics, astronomy and environmental issues, as well as general science topics. Kelly is working on a Master of Arts degree at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, and has a Bachelor of Science degree and Bachelor of Arts degree from Berry College. Kelly was a competitive swimmer for 13 years, and dabbles in skimboarding and long-distance running.