For years, car accidents have been the leading cause of accidental death. But that all changed four years ago when, for the first time, vehicle-related deaths were topped by poisoning due to prescription painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin.

In 2008, 41,000 Americans died from accidental overdose, compared to the 38,000 who succumbed to vehicle deaths. Since then, driving-related deaths have been declining, but more and more people are falling victim to what some are describing as an epidemic in prescription painkiller abuse.

In the last three decades, the poisoning rate has tripled, while motor vehicle deaths decreased by almost half. From 1999 to 2008 alone, cases of poisoning increased a staggering 90 percent and vehicle-related deaths dropped by 15 percent.

Put simply, the cause seems to be widespread abuse. One-third of all Americans take two or more prescription drugs, and the most frequently prescribed drugs are narcotics. In fact, some doctors are having difficulty keeping up with painkiller demand, and some pharmacies have ceased stocking them due to a sharp increase in the number of armed robberies.

To stem the problem, some insurance companies are asking doctors to justify painkiller prescriptions that exceed 30 days, and more than 40 states have created programs to monitor the prescription and use of painkillers.


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