In 2004, poisoning was second only to motor-vehicle crashes as a cause of death from unintentional injury in the United States. Nearly all poisoning deaths are attributed to abuse of prescription and illegal drugs. Previous reports indicated a substantial increase in unintentional poisoning mortality during the 1980s and 1990s. This report summarizes the most recent data, which indicated that poisoning mortality rates in the United States increased by 62.5 percent during 1999–2004. Created: 2/9/2007 by MMWR.
Date Released: 3/30/2007. Series Name: A Cup of Health with CDC.
A CUP OF HEALTH WITH CDC
Drug Overdose Deaths
What do we know about drug overdose deaths in the United States?
March 30, 2007
[Announcer] This podcast is presented by the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention. CDC – safer, healthier people.
[Matthew Reynolds] Welcome to A Cup of Health with CDC, a weekly broadcast
MMWR, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. I’m your host, Matthew
More than 50 people die of unintentional drug overdoses in the United States
Poisoning, whether from prescription or illegal drugs, is now second only to
crashes as a cause of unintentional injury deaths. Drug overdoses are a growing
problem. The rate of deadly drug overdoses has increased nearly 70% since 1999.
Here to discuss these recent trends is Dr. Len Paulozzi. Dr. Paulozzi is a
CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and the lead
author of a new
study on unintentional drug overdoses. Welcome to the show, Dr. Paulozzi.
[Dr. Paulozzi] Thank you for having me, Matthew. It’s a pleasure being
[Matthew Reynolds] Dr. Paulozzi, what did your study show about the number
overdose deaths in the past few years? In other words, are you seeing changes
number and kinds of drug overdoses?
[Dr. Paulozzi] Well, our study showed that the number of drug poisoning deaths
overdoses rose from a little over 11,000 in 1999 to almost 20,000 in 2004,
and that was
a 68% increase in the rate. The largest increase was in the category called
psychotherapeutic drugs where the rates went up 84%. However, the category
contained the most deaths, almost 10,000 of these deaths in 2004, was the narcotics
category, and it went up 55%. This category includes prescription narcotic
cocaine, and heroin.
[Matthew Reynolds] I didn’t realize that drug overdoses were that common.
unintentional drug poisoning deaths compare with other causes of unintentional
[Dr. Paulozzi] Poisoning [deaths], of which drug poisoning accounts for about
now second only to motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of unintentional
death in the United States, and they’re rising fast.
[Matthew Reynolds] I know it may be difficult to generalize, but were you able
any conclusions regarding the ‘typical’ victim of a drug overdose?
[Dr. Paulozzi] Yes. Drug overdoses – these poisoning deaths – are
really twice as
common in men as women, so men account for about 2/3 of the drug overdose deaths,
and people 35-54 years of age – middle age people – clearly have
the highest rates. In
fact, people in this age group accounted for 60% of all the poisoning deaths
[Matthew Reynolds] I suppose a study like this might reveal changes in the
circumstances of deaths from drug overdoses. What were you able to learn about
trends in drug overdose deaths in the United States?
[Dr. Paulozzi] Well, we saw that rates in white people were going up much faster
rates in blacks. In fact, white rates passed rates for African Americans for
between 1999 and 2004. Furthermore, rates among non-Hispanics went up much
than rates among Hispanics. Rates among American Indian Alaska Natives also
[Matthew Reynolds] I hear the term “drug overdose” used quite a
bit. Are you seeing
trends in the kinds of drugs that lead to these overdoses?
[Dr. Paulozzi] Yes we are. As I mentioned, we saw increases in the psychotherapeutic
drugs and in the category we call narcotics. Other studies previous to this
suggested that a lot of these deaths are occurring among people who are taking
prescription drugs and especially among people who are abusing prescription
And these other studies single out narcotic painkillers as a particularly important
contributor to these deaths.
[Matthew Reynolds] It sounds as if your study is revealing an alarming increase
number of deaths from drug overdoses. Do you have any ideas about why we are
seeing such a large increase?
[Dr. Paulozzi] Well, there has been a really dramatic increase in the use of
narcotic painkillers and psychotherapeutic drugs to treat anxiety and depression,
insomnia in recent years. And the death rates have gone up in parallel with
increases. So we have some ideas that the increases are related to increases
prescribing and availability of this class of drugs.
[Matthew Reynolds] I understand that you found an increase in the drug poisoning
deaths in rural areas. Why is this problem growing so much faster in rural
[Dr. Paulozzi] Well, you’re right about that. We did find that. The largest
increases in this
study were in the South and the Midwest, and those are the most rural parts
country, so it’s the most rural states that are seeing the largest increase
in their rates.
We’re not exactly sure why this is happening, however, but it might be
regional differences in drug use, in drug abuse, or even in drug abuse control
measures. We’re trying to figure this out now.
[Matthew Reynolds] Since you found that some people died as a result of prescription
drug overdoses, do you have any recommendations for people who are taking
prescription drugs? Are they safe?
[Dr. Paulozzi] Well, prescription drugs are safe when they’re taken as
get into trouble when they start to use the drugs recreationally or take more
prescribed amounts in an attempt, for example, to get faster or more effective
relief. The narcotic painkillers, in particular, are powerful drugs with an
potential and they must be used with close monitoring by a physician.
[Matthew Reynolds] Well Dr. Paulozzi, thank you for taking the time to talk
to us today.
[Dr. Paulozzi] You’re welcome. Thank you for inviting me.
[Matthew Reynolds] That’s it for this week’s show. Don’t
forget to join us next week.
Until then, be well. This is Matthew Reynolds for A Cup of Health with CDC.
[Announcer] To access the most accurate and relevant health information that
you, your family and your community, please visit www.cdc.gov.