RSS
America's deadly painkiller addiction: A guide
Nearly 15,000 painkiller deaths were recorded in 2010, but sales of OxyContin and Vicodin are still skyrocketing
Some 42 tons of hydrocodone, also known as "hillbilly heroin," were dispensed by pharmacies and hospitals in 2010.
Some 42 tons of hydrocodone, also known as "hillbilly heroin," were dispensed by pharmacies and hospitals in 2010.
Marianna Day Massey/ZUMA/Corbis
U

se of prescription painkillers is exploding across the United States, according to a new Associated Press report. In fact, the Drug Enforcement Administration claims that sales of oxycodone, the active ingredient in brand name painkillers like Percocet and OxyContin, skyrocketed by a factor of 16 between 2000 to 2010. What's behind America's addiction to painkillers? Here, a brief guide to the growing epidemic: 

How widespread is this problem?
In 2010, pharmacies and hospitals dispensed the equivalent of 69 tons of pure oxycodone and 42 tons of hydrocodone, sometimes called "hillbilly heroin" because of its prevalence in low-income areas. "That's enough to give 40 five-milligram Percocets and 24 five-milligram Vicodins to every man, woman, and child in the United States," says the AP.

And people are dying?
Lots of people. In 2010, nearly 15,000 opiate-related overdose deaths were recorded in the U.S., and the death rate shows no signs of abating. In December 2011, a report by the National Center for Health Statistics found that prescription pill overdoses had surpassed automobile accidents as a leading cause of death in the United States

Where is the problem worst?
Appalachia and the Midwest have seen the sharpest upticks in hydrocodone usage, while Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Florida have all grappled with increases in pharmacy robberies and opiate-related overdoses.  

But why is painkiller use on the rise?
As baby boomers get older and Americans live longer, doctors are prescribing more and more painkillers. And some health professionals are displaying a greater willingness to use painkillers to treat mundane aches and pains, says CBS News. Once a patient is hooked, sales are driven by addiction, with Americans sometimes approaching multiple doctors to feed their growing dependency. "We all now must recognize that these drugs can be just as dangerous as illicit substances when misused or abused," says U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske. And the risks of highly-addictive opiates, which provide a rush of dopamine to the brain, are further exacerbated by institutional problems, says Kelly Bourdet at Vice. "There aren't enough treatment centers dealing with opiate addiction."  

Sources: Associated Press, CBS News, LA Times, Vice

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week