Study reveals causes for sharp increase in deaths from painkillers in U.S. and Canada

June 23, 2014

The number of deaths involving commonly prescribed painkillers is higher than the number of deaths by overdose from heroin and cocaine combined, according to researchers at McGill University. In a first-of-its-kind review of existing research, the McGill team has put the spotlight on a major public health problem: the dramatic increase in deaths due to prescribed painkillers, which were involved in more than 16,000 deaths in 2010 in the United States alone. Currently, the U.S. and Canada rank #1 and #2 in per capita opioid consumption.

“Prescription painkiller overdoses have received a lot of attention in the popular press, but we wanted to find out what solid evidence is out there,” says lead study author Nicholas King, PhD, of the Biomedical Ethics Unit in the Faculty of Medicine. In an effort to identify and summarize available evidence, King and his team surveyed the scientific literature, including only reports with quantitative evidence.

“We wanted to find out why thousands of people in the U.S. and Canada are dying from prescription painkillers every year, and why these rates have climbed steadily during the past two decades,” says King. “We found evidence for at least 17 different determinants of increasing opioid-related mortality, mainly: dramatically increased prescription and sales of opioids; increased use of strong, long-acting opioids like Oxycontin and methadone; combined use of opioids and other (licit and illicit) drugs and alcohol; and social and demographic factors.”

The findings point to a complicated “epidemic” in which physicians, users, the healthcare system, and the social environment all play a role, according to the researchers. Read the abstract of the article, published recently in the American Journal of Public Health.

Read more