The number of deaths from prescription painkillers -- opioids, such as OxyContin, Vicodin and hydrocodone -- in the United States has now surpassed that of skin cancer, alcoholic liver disease and HIV, according to a new study published online in the British Medical Journal.
The deaths may be linked with an increase in doctors prescribing the drugs to patients with chronic pain -- like osteoarthritis -- and not just cancer patients, according to the University of Toronto researchers.
Between 1999 and 2007, the number of deaths associated with opioid analgesics increased from 4,041 to 14,459, the researchers also reported.
The new finding is hardly the first to look at the increase in prescription painkiller-related deaths. Another study, published this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, also acknowledged the increase, and pointed out that overdose deaths were most common among patients prescribed high doses of opioids.
In addition, the Associated Press reported just this week that hydrocodone abuse is on the rise, with police seizures of the pills increasing from 13,659 in 2001 to 44,815 in 2010.
Online pharmacies may be helping to fuel the trend, providing easier access to people looking to abuse the drugs, Reuters reported. Many of these online pharmacies aren't located in the United States, and don't require a doctor's prescription.
Curbing abuse -- and thereby deaths -- from painkillers is a complex problem, and researchers said a possible strategy is to eliminate commissions for drug companies for marketing the drugs. Another strategy is for pharmacies and doctor offices to implement electronic databases to track how many times a person retrieves an opioid prescription, they said.
In a 2007 perspective in the Journal of the American Medical Association, doctors also suggested having greater surveillance -- including urine testing and tamper-proof prescription notepads -- of patients prescribed with opioids. Pharmaceutical companies could also help by formulating their drugs to make them more abuse-resistant, doctors said.
For more information on where to go for help on battling a painkiller addiction, visit HelpGuide.org's guide to addiction treatment or the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) site to find a treatment facility.