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Drug Overdose Now a Leading Cause of Death in U.S.

For the first time, the number of deaths in the United States due to drug overdoses have surpassed the number of fatalities caused by auto accidents, as prescription drug abuse continues to climb out of control.

According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 37,485 people died from a drug overdose in 2009, compared to 36,284 who died in car and truck accidents that same year.

While some of the drug deaths were accidental overdoses, the numbers are being driven by skyrocketing rates of prescription drug abuse, particularly involving powerful painkillers like OxyContin, fentanyl and morphine.

While laws and safety campaigns have caused a steady drop in auto accident deaths in recent years, federal and state law enforcement and health officials have been at a loss to turn around the rising prescription drug addiction and abuse rates, which by some estimates cause a U.S. death every 14 minutes. However, this is the first time there have been more drug deaths than auto accident fatalities since tracking of drug overdoses began in 1979.

Earlier this year, the FDA initiated a painkiller abuse reduction plan, asking drug manufacturers to develop a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) for all long-action opioids that would help keep them out of the hands of abusers.

The FDA Opioid Strategy will require educating doctors on proper pain management, patient selection and will educate patients on proper use, dangers and disposal of the drugs.

Other federal agencies intend to expand state-based prescription drug monitoring programs, find ways to get unused medications out of homes, support education programs and go after so-called “pill mills”; doctors and clinics that prescribe powerful painkillers at the drop of a hat. Health and Human Services, the Justice Department, Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense are just some of the agencies involved in the initiative, known as “Epidemic: Responding to America’s Prescription Drug Abuse Crisis.”

The FDA identified a dozen extended-release, long-acting brand-name opioids and four types of generic opioids that will have to develop a REMS program. FDA officials say they hope the drug manufacturers will work together to develop a single REMS system.

The brand-name drugs affected by the strategy include Duragesic, Palladone, Dolophine, Avinza, Kadian, MS Contin, Oramorph, Embeda, OxyContin, Opana ER, Exalgo and Butrans. The generic drugs affected by the strategy include fentanyl, methadone, morphine, and oxycodone.

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