The world can be a dangerous place, but even with all the bad drivers, treacherous heights and violence, more people are dying from drug overdoses than from any other cause of injury death, including traffic accidents, falls or guns.
According to the latest available data from the Centers for Disease Control, drug overdoses were responsible for 38,329 deaths in 2010, 30,006 of which were unintentional. That's a rate of 105 every day, and that number doesn't take into account the 6,748 people treated every day for the misuse or abuse of drugs.
In comparison, traffic accidents were responsible for 33,687 deaths in 2010. Firearms killed 31,672 people, and 26,852 died as a result of falling.
The overdose epidemic is not a new phenomenon. The CDC reports that drug overdose death rates have risen steadily since 1992, seeing a 102 percent increase from 1999 to 2010. Drug overdose deaths first overtook traffic deaths in 2009 and continued to grow the subsequent year. Preliminary CDC estimates for 2011 suggest the trend has continued, though the report notes that the final number of overdose deaths may well be higher than the initial reported numbers, due to delays pending investigation of the cause of death.
In 60 percent of all overdose deaths, prescription pharmaceuticals were to blame. Those shocking statistics have led policy makers at both the federal and state levels to refocus their efforts on addressing this abuse.
The severity of the overdose issue has not been lost on drug policy reformers, who are seeking to highlight it and its tragic consequences on Aug. 31 -- International Overdose Awareness Day. Activists point to recent state moves on 911 Good Samaritan laws, which offer legal protection to anyone seeking medical help for themselves or others in the incident of a drug or alcohol overdose, as key steps in the effort to combat overdose deaths. Such measures were passed in Vermont and New Jersey in the last legislative session.
Reformers are also seeking to make a push to expand access to naloxone, a drug administered as an overdose antidote for opiate drugs. Studies have shown it can cut overdose death rates by 50 percent, yet only 11 states have enacted laws giving legal protection to those who administer the drug.
“Good Samaritan and naloxone access laws are important first steps in tackling the overdose problem,” said Meghan Ralston, harm reduction manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. “But much more is needed, such as integrating overdose prevention into existing drug education programs.”