Deaths are an accurate way to get a handle on the size of the problem, because these are definitive data, Warner said.
Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, medical director of the Florida Poison Information Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said "we knew this was coming; it shouldn't shock anybody. It's disturbing though."
More attention needs to be devoted to this problem, Bernstein noted. "It needs to be attacked from multiple angles and multiple levels in the way we have made headway in trauma," he said.
"There are newer and better drugs and that's great for treating people's pain, but they come with a price," Bernstein pointed out. "There is addiction and interactions with other drugs, and potential for overdose and misuse."
The number of users and abusers of these drugs is much greater than those who die from them, Warner added. "This is the tip of the iceberg," she said.
By 2010, 12 million Americans said they were using opioid painkillers without a prescription. In 2009, almost 500,000 emergency room visits were for abuse of these painkillers. This costs health insurance companies as much as $72 billion a year in direct costs, the CDC said in a November report.
Dr. Chris Jones, a CDC health scientist who was not involved in the latest report, said that deaths from opioid painkillers have "increased significantly over the last decade. We have also seen an increase in people who have nonfatal overdoses who are showing up in emergency departments."
In fact, there was a 98 percent increase in emergency room visits due to these painkillers between 2004 and 2009, he said. These emergency room visits are greater than those seen for overdoses of heroin and cocaine, Jones added.
The dramatic increase in deaths and overdoses from prescription drugs is due to a vastly increased
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