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Is Prescription Drug Addiction And Sudden Death Ever Really An Accident
While the New York medical examiner was recently deciding to rule actor Heath Ledger’s death “an accident” – the brilliant young star of “Brokeback Mountain” died last week from a lethal combination of six different prescription drugs – a British parliamentary inquiry concluded that doctors in that country are negligently prescribing dangerously high doses of painkillers, sleeping tablets and anti-anxiety medication, often without even seeing the patient, and fueling an epidemic of prescription drug addiction.
The UK’s Home Office blames the misuse of anti-anxiety medications called benzodiazepines for causing 17,000 deaths since their introduction in the 1960s. The situation in America is no different from that in the UK and many other countries, where prescription drug addiction has reached epidemic proportions and drug detox facilities are treating more patients for prescription drug addiction than addictions to illicit street drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. In fact, the White House has just launched an advertising campaign to warn teenagers and their parents of the dangers of prescription drug addiction.
Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, Valium, Librium and Klonopin are a huge problem, and a newer class of sleep drugs called “non-benzos” that include such popular brands as Ambien, Sonata and Lunesta, create calming effects like benzos and can also lead to the prescription drug addiction and dependency problems cited by the UK’s parliamentary inquiry.
Even deadlier are the opioid painkillers like OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, Lortab and others. These opium-like prescription pain killers create many of the same effects as heroin, and are more dangerous because most people, especially teenagers and the elderly, are unaware of their power to quickly cause dependency or a full-bore prescription drug addiction.
But even more dangerous is the common practice of combining any of the benzodiazepine-type drugs with opioid painkillers or with alcohol – or indeed, mixing almost anything with anything, including many simple over-the-counter meds. Heath Ledger succumbed to five different prescriptions and an over-the-counter drug, and Anna Nicole Smith died a year ago with nine different prescription drugs in her system. Their deaths tragically illustrate that taking your prescriptions as directed can kill you. Tox screens showed that neither celebrity had an overdose of any single drug, but the combinations added up to an “overdose” – and of course their deaths were ruled “accidental”.
There have been suggestions in the media that both stars suffered from a prescription drug addiction or at least dependencies that might have been avoided if their physicians had been more vigilant. Ledger’s Australian doctors will be investigated if any of the prescription drugs that led to his death were prescribed in his homeland, said the US Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA has subpoenaed Ledger’s autopsy results from the New York Medical Examiner’s Office and is attempting to find out why the actor was in possession of five different types of powerful prescription drugs. New York police, who are assisting the DEA with its investigation, said some of the prescription drugs were prescribed in Europe.
Like Ledger and Smith, thousands of fatalities occur every year because people get their prescription drugs from multiple doctors and don’t disclose all the other prescriptions they have, or worse, from doctors who are just not paying attention. A patient might also lie to a doctor about what drugs he’s taking so he can hide a prescription drug addiction or dependency problem, and doctors might be forgiven for writing a new one in such cases. But when the prescribing physician ignores your other prescriptions, or doesn’t even ask about them, the question arises about what constitutes an “accident” and what may be called negligence.
There is a movement across the country to set up prescription drug databases where doctors and pharmacists can check what drugs have already been prescribed to someone. A number of states already have such databases in place, and are proving they can reduce prescription drug addiction as well as helping doctors avoid being complicit in fatal prescription drug “accidents”.
Although some states are still debating the database approach, primarily because of questions about privacy and cost, it is something that can be done now to improve our flawed system and help lessen the numbers of people joining the ranks of those with a prescription drug addiction or dependency problem. It will also help reduce the numbers of fatal prescription drug overdose “accidents” and help identify those who need prescription drug detox to recover their lives.
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