Editorial: Don't be numb to painkiller dangers

Mar. 23, 2013 @ 07:30 PM

Roy Cooper, North Carolina's attorney general, rallied students at Durham's City of Medicine Academy last week to spread the word about the hazards of prescription drugs.

It's a critical message about a growing problem, especially as it affects young people – student athletes who might become addicted to painkillers after suffering a sports injury, teens who abuse their attention deficit medication or kids who sneak pills from their parents's medicine cabinets at home.

Prescription drugs “can be very good for us,” Cooper said. “However, when abused, they can be deadly.”

In particular, the drugs prove perilous when mixed with alcohol and other narcotics.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that drug overdose death rates have more than tripled since 1990, now killing about 100 people every day.

In 2008, overdoses killed 36,000 throughout the United States – most of them by prescription drugs.

The most commonly abused medications include:

  • Opioids: Opium-derived painkillers, such as hydrocodone, oxycodone and codeine.

  • Benzodiazepines: Depressants used to induce sleep and ease anxiety, such as alprazolam, diazapam and lorazepam.

  • Amphetamine-like drugs: Stimulants used for ADHD, such as dextroamphetamine and methylphenidate.

Statistics from the CDC indicate that 3 out of 4 prescription drug overdoses are linked to the opioid painkillers, which were involved in 14,800 overdose deaths in 2008. Legally obtainable painkillers killed more people than heroin and cocaine combined. About half those deaths involved at least one other drug and often alcohol.

It's chilling to think about, and it gets worse. These drugs don't usually come from shady narcotics dealers. Instead, they're prescribed by a doctor or taken from a friend or relative.

For every death, the CDC reports, 10 people are admitted for abuse treatment, 32 go to the emergency room, 130 are dependent on prescription drugs and 825 are nonmedical users who are basically just addicts waiting to happen.

Cooper chose CMA, a small Durham public school program that specializes in health and medicine, because students at the school won last year's contest to create a public service announcement on YouTube about the perils of prescription drug abuse.

It was a fine gesture to kick off this year's repeat of the contest by talking to these students, but we can't help but think it was somewhat of a missed opportunity. Cooper could have reached so many more teens in need of the information by visiting one of the larger high schools in Durham.