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Prescription Drugs: San Diego’s Leading Cause Of Accidental Death

Evening Edition

Above: The leading cause of accidental death in San Diego isn't car crashes, or firearms: it's prescription drugs. Over the last decade, prescription drug-related deaths in the county have increased by 85 percent. As KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg tells us, the vast majority of these fatalities are caused by an overdose of prescription painkillers.

Aired 12/15/11 on KPBS News.

Prescription drug overdoses have surpassed car crashes to become the number-one cause of accidental death in San Diego.

— The leading cause of accidental death in San Diego isn’t car crashes, or firearms: it’s prescription drugs.

Over the last decade, prescription drug-related deaths in the county have increased by 85 percent.

The vast majority of these fatalities are caused by an overdose of prescription painkillers.

Everyone in San Diego who suffers an accidental or non-natural death is taken to the County Medical Examiner’s office in Kearny Mesa.

Each body spends some time in cold storage before it’s wheeled into another room for an autopsy.

Deputy Medical Examiner Jonathan Lucas said most of the bodies are collected after a few days.

"But others that are either abandoned or maybe unidentified may be here for weeks or months," Dr. Lucas said.

Lucas makes his living figuring out the causes of a person’s death. He said recently, more and more San Diegans have been killed by an overdose of prescription drugs.

"The biggest issue within the prescription drug problem are really the narcotics," Lucas pointed out. "The opiates, the pain medications, the morphine derivatives, the opiate derivatives."

In San Diego County last year, five widely prescribed drugs: methadone, oxycodone, Valium, hydrocodone, and morphine, killed 222 people. That’s more than died by alcohol and heroin combined.

"Most of the deaths that we see are in people in the age range of about 40 to about 60," Lucas said. "And these are the people that generally have problems like chronic pain. And they have a legitimate reason to have these medications. But, they may mix, or borrow, or overtake their medications more than prescribed."

In another part of the medical examiner’s building, all of the medications seized at death scenes are stored in brown paper bags.

Chief Medical Examiner Glenn Wagner said he’s noticed a big rise in the quantity of different drugs people are taking.

"This shopping bag represents one individual," Dr. Wagner said, holding up a large grocery bag. "And the number of drugs that person had on board…there are 19 separate lines on this one, and it goes for several pages."

Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Tom Lenox keeps a watchful eye on prescription drugs in San Diego. He said people don’t seem to have trouble getting narcotics.

"The prescriptions are being written, they’re getting out into the community," Lenox said. "So they could be getting them from their own home, they could be getting them from friends' homes, where they’re going in and stealing them from their friends' homes."

Lenox says in 2008, one of the most popular drugs on the street was the painkiller Oxycontin, in 80-milligram pills.

Lenox decided to track how many of these pills were being distributed to San Diego pharmacies.

"We found there were approximately 675,000 in 2007," Lenox recalled. "When I looked at 2008, it jumped to almost 1.1 million, almost an additional 500,000 pills.”

Dr. Robert Wailes is a pain specialist in Encinitas. He prescribes narcotics to his patients all the time.

"They provide tremendous assistance for those people in chronic pain," he said. "So used correctly, they’re wonderful."

Wailes concedes some people don’t use them correctly. And he said in general, physicians need better training on how to prescribe drugs for chronic pain. But Wailes believes the issue is much bigger than that.

"I think what we need to understand as a medical profession is more about addiction," he said. "Because what we’re talking about is not the tip of the iceberg, but part of a bigger problem, and that is addiction. And it has to do with alcohol, and it has to do with other illicit drugs, as well as prescription medication."

Alcohol has been the nation’s number one drug of choice for years. But Federal officials call prescription drug abuse America’s fastest growing drug problem.

Comments

Avatar for user 'hbonnemx'

hbonnemx | December 15, 2011 at 12:38 p.m. ― 3 years ago

Often overlooked in deaths associated with chronic pain and chronic use of pain medication is that the patient needs increasing amounts of drug to control the pain as they "acclimate" to their current dose. There are several papers in the literature that show drug levels way above the normally lethal level but the patients are alive, well, and functioning. Hopefully this is being taken into account before attributing death to the drugs.

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