Here’s a quiz: What’s the leading cause of injury deaths among 25- to 64-year-olds in both Minnesota and the U.S.?
Bet you said traffic accidents. If you did, you’re wrong. Drug overdoses are the big killer, taking nearly 44,000 U.S. lives in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Among abused drugs, which are most responsible for death? If you’re thinking illegal street dope, you’re wrong. By the CDC’s count, more than half of the 2013 overdose deaths were related to prescription drugs — stuff that many Americans can find in their medicine chests. Among them, opioids — Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, Opana and more — are the most lethal.
Prescription painkillers have become a common gateway to another, more affordable addictive scourge, heroin. Four out of five new heroin users in Minnesota are believed to have been first addicted to painkilling pills. Their abuse is also a major cause of a host of other ills — including brain damage to infants born to addicted mothers and a growing number of children in need of state protection.
That’s why a state conference being held Tuesday on prescription painkiller abuse attracted so many registrants that it was relocated to Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota. More than 1,000 leaders of the state’s medical, justice and social-service communities will assemble to study the prescription drug-abuse problem and take first steps toward a coordinated statewide strategy for solving it.
The conference, “Pain. Pill. Problem: Minnesota Moving Forward Together,” is the brainchild of state Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger. They deserve praise for acting now rather than waiting for a problem that is worse in other parts of the country to grow deeper roots here.
That’s not to say our state has been spared. While Minnesota’s mortality rate from prescription drug abuse was fifth-lowest in the country in 2010, the state’s rate had doubled over the previous dozen years. In 2013, nearly one in four people seeking drug-abuse treatment in the Twin Cities was addicted to either opioids or heroin — a rate second only to alcohol addiction.
Jesson said opioid abuse is particularly worrisome among Minnesota’s American Indian population. In 2012, one of every 10 American Indian infants in the state was born addicted to prescription painkillers, she said; half of the mothers involved had been prescribed those addictive medicines while they were pregnant.
That fact underscores the “moving forward together” theme of Tuesday’s conference: Doctors and pharmacists must be part of any plan for reducing painkiller abuse. So must chemical dependency specialists, social-service workers, law enforcers, keepers of government data and lawmakers. In fact, so must anyone who seeks pain relief via a prescription drug. Consumers need to be more aware of the life-damaging potential of these powerful and addictive medicines, and use them accordingly.