The investigation into actor Heath Ledger’s death last week as a possible drug overdose is bringing attention to a nationwide health crisis: Overdose fatalities have risen dramatically in the U.S. since 1999, largely because of prescription drugs, says the Los Angeles Times. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that unintentional poisoning deaths — 95 percent of which are drug overdoses — increased from 12,186 in 1999 to 20,950 in 2004. During that time, prescription drugs overtook cocaine and heroin combined as the leading cause of lethal overdoses.
Drug treatment experts doubt that most people realize the seriousness of the problem. Because prescription drugs aren’t street drugs, people think they don’t have the same risk, said John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Walters unveiled an advertising campaign Thursday to target prescription drug abuse by teenagers. The first TV ad will be broadcast Sunday during the Super Bowl. The great majority of overdose deaths are due to opioid painkillers, including oxycodone, fentanyl and methadone (in pill form rather than the liquid dispensed for recovering heroin addicts), which control pain but also reduce respiratory function. Too high a dose, when not increased gradually under careful supervision, can shut down breathing. Prescription drug sales have soared nearly 500 percent since 1990.