SALT LAKE CITY — A new study shows that painkiller abuse has not only reached epidemic levels in the United States, but overdose deaths continue a disturbing rise.
And Utah is among the top states leading the nation in deaths.
According to a study released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Utah ranks fourth in the nation for the rate of fatal painkiller overdoses, ahead of Nevada, West Virginia and New Mexico.
The report shows that the rate of overdoses due to painkillers has more than tripled over the last decade. Prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin, Vicodin and methadone contributed to 15,000 deaths in 2008 as compared to 4,000 deaths in 1999.
Nearly 5 percent of Americans 12 and older have reported abusing prescription painkillers. But while Utah rates high in fatalities, it does not rank high in the number of reported abuse. The highest rates of abuse was reported in Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington.
Fatal overdoses were more likely to be in men and adults between the ages of 35 and 54. In Utah, that age group is 25-54.
"We're unfortunately not surprised by the numbers," said Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko. Since 2008, where the CDC study leaves off, Hudachko said the state has started to see an actual decline in fatalities.
State officials attribute this to public awareness campaigns and the introduction of a program where people can drop off left-over drugs to their nearest police stations. Hudachko said the largest risk factor of painkiller abuse and death is having excess painkillers at home.
People can visit Utah's website, useonlyasdirected.org, for more information on the tragic toll prescription drug overdoses can take and what people can do to prevent them.
Between 2000 and 2007, Utah saw a 500 percent increase in overdoses, topping at 326 deaths in 2007. The state reported 236 deaths in 2010, Hudachko said.
Last summer, a University of Utah researcher found that opioid painkillers were the leading cause of drug-related deaths in Utah.
"Preventing unnecessary deaths from opioid therapy should be a central focus for everyone working in the field of pain medicine," Dr. Lynn Webster said in a written press statement last June.
"Our analysis showed that prescription drug-related harm, including death, in Utah primarily involved opioids," stated Dr. Christina Porucznik, assistant professor in the Division of Public Health at the University of Utah, in the same statement, adding that further study is needed to determine risk patterns in prescriptions and individual risk factors.
A separate analysis led by Webster showed an increasing pattern of painkiller-related deaths in Utah, beginning in the early 2000s. Possible contributors to these deaths, researchers found, was the presence of sleep-disordered breathing and use of other drugs that depress the central nervous system, such as alcohol and antidepressants.
"Patients with depression, anxiety or other mental illness who also have chronic pain need structured care that minimizes risks," Webster said.
Hudachko said the state commissioned a study of Utah's overdoses two years ago. That study showed deaths were evenly split between males and females, 40 percent had reported some form of substance abuse two months prior, and 92 percent had reported suffering some form of chronic pain. Some 74 percent had used some form of medication to help them sleep and 78 percent had used medications to treat stress or anxiety.
In addition, two-thirds of those deaths were people who were unemployed.
"This is a problem that cuts across all boundaries — age, race, economics. Unfortunately this has been a problem that has been with us for a long time," Hudachko said.