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Prescription Drug Overdose Rates See Seven-Fold Increase in Past Decade in New York City

Update Date: Feb 04, 2013 08:13 AM EST

Prescription drug overdoses in New York City increased seven-fold over a 16-year period, says a new study. Researchers found that many people die due to overdose of prescription opioids than the dangerous opioid - heroin.

The study team from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health reported that drug overdose was more likely to involve overdose of analgesics or painkillers like oxycontin than methadone that is usually prescribed to treat heroin addiction. Also, rates of heroin overdose declined in the past few years in New York City, the study found.

Prescription drug abuse or use of prescription drugs for non-medical purposes is a serious threat to public health. According to Medline Plus, an estimated 20 percent of the people in the U.S. have abused prescription drugs like painkillers.

Unintentional overdose deaths that involve prescription opioids have increased by 4 times since 1999 and these now outnumber overdoses from hardcore drugs like heroin and cocaine combined, says National Institute for Drug Abuse.

For the study, researchers obtained data from the city's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for the period between 1990 and 2006.

The fatality from overdose of analgesic was higher in whites, with the fatality rates in this racial group being twice as high as Latinos and thrice as high as Blacks.

Death due to analgesic overdose was more likely to happen in a place that isn't poor but has high rates of income inequality, researchers found.

"A possible reason for the concentration of fatalities among whites is that this group is more likely to have access to a doctor who can write prescriptions. However, more often than not, those who get addicted have begun using the drug through illicit channels rather than through a prescription," said Magdalena Cerdá, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health and the lead author on the study.

Researchers add that price of the drugs and the demographics of an area may also have an effect on the kinds of the drugs being abused for non-medical purposes. Also, the idea that prescription drugs are safe may be driving some people to take higher doses of the drug that ultimately kills the person.

The study is published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Researchers from the present study say that painkillers need to be regulated on their distributions as well as marketing.

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