Did you know that prescription drug overdoses now actually claim more lives than traffic accidents in most U.S. states? What about the fact that one person in the U.S. dies every 24 minutes from a prescription drug overdose?

While prescription drugs may seem “safe” because they’re legal, prescription drugs are now responsible for more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined. 

Prescription drug use, abuse, and overdose is quickly becoming a U.S. tragedy, with more people becoming addicted to the drugs every year. Since 1999, prescription drug overdoses have risen by 265% in men and 400% in women.

Even considering these sobering facts, the rates of highly addictive opioids, such as OxyContin and morphine, being  prescribed from 2000 to 2010 has actually doubled. This is while rates of prescriptions for safer alternatives–like ibuprofen and acetaminophen–has actually declined or stayed the same. More importantly, this increase has not been accompanied by an improvement in rates of pain among patients.

In other words, opioid prescriptions are on the rise with no change in actual pain relief. 

There are many places to point the blame: from parents to prescription drug companies to physicians. The problem, however, is such a large one that it will take a wide-spread effort and changes in legislation to actually help prevent future addictions and deaths.

Some states are already trying to introduce legislation to tackle the issue. In August 2013, Alabama introduced a trio of bills that gives medical personnel better access to the state’s program for monitoring prescriptions, tightens the regulations on pain management clinics, and actually makes “doctor shopping” a Class A misdemeanor.

Other states, like Indiana and Kentucky, are also tightening regulations on pain management clinics. In Washington state, doctors now have to get a second opinion from a pain specialist for any prescriptions over a certain dosage. In New York, doctors and pharmacists must check the state’s drug monitoring database before prescribing opioids.

Pharmaceutical companies are also trying to help the addiction problem. Purdue Pharma, producer of OxyContin, introduced a coating on the pills that made it so the pill couldn’t be snorted, crushed, or smoked. Unfortunately, generic forms of the pill now available don’t have the same preventative measures and are increasingly abused.

On the grassroots side, more individuals are stepping up and trying to put an end to prescription drug abuse.

The Israel family in New York has been a key proponent of the new state legislation after their son’s self-inflicted death that was spurred in part by his painkiller addiction. Natalie Costa released Behind the Orange Curtaina full documentary about the prescription drug problem, after watching her daughter suffer after a friend’s death due to painkillers.

With a wide-spread community effort, the U.S. may be able to overcome the prescription drug problem. Due to its infiltration in our society, however, the work will take many years and the efforts of many people and organizations.

Image by Carsten Schertzer via Flickr