Utah Sees Dip In Rx Drug Deaths

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

The Utah Department of Health (UDOH) today announced the number of deaths associated with prescription drug overdoses in the state decreased by 12.6 percent from 2007 to 2008. The decrease represents 40 fewer deaths during that timeframe. Still, 277 Utahns died in 2008 of what public health officials view as a preventable epidemic The dip is the largest decrease in non-illicit drug overdose deaths recorded in the Medical Examiner’s database since 1994.

Still, deaths due to all drug overdoses (including illicit, nonillicit, and combinations of the two) remained roughly unchanged from 2007. In 2007, the Medical Examiner investigated 528 drug overdose cases, compared to 517 in 2008. “From what we are seeing on a daily basis, drug overdoses are still the largest single category of cases coming into the Office of the Medical Examiner,” said Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Todd Grey. “This is an ongoing problem that requires continued attention.”

In 2008, at least one non-illicit drug overdose death occurred in 22 of Utah’s 29 counties. Males and females were affected about equally, with females accounting for 48 percent of deaths and males accounting for 52 percent. Pain medications remain the most common type of prescriptions involved in overdose deaths, and were present in 82 percent of the non-illicit drug deaths. They include drugs like oxycodone (such as Oxycontin and Percocet), hydrocodone (such as Lortab and Vicodin) and methadone.


“While we’re happy to see our numerous efforts to educate the public about the potential dangers of prescription pain medications have begun to pay off, we still face a significant challenge in reducing the number of deaths even further,” said UDOH Executive Director Dr. David Sundwall. “I do take comfort, though, in knowing that 40 Utah families didn’t have to go through the pain of losing a loved one because of misuse of prescription pain medications.”

In May 2008, UDOH launched its ‘Use Only as Directed’ campaign with the intention of educating Utah residents about the potential dangers of prescription drugs. The campaign’s goal is to reduce the number of unintentional prescription pain medication deaths in Utah by 15 percent by 2009, using 2006 numbers as the benchmark.

The Use Only as Directed campaign has developed materials that are used to help the public, patients, doctors, pharmacists and insurers understand the potential dangers of prescription pain medications. The Utah campaign also broke new ground earlier this year with the release of the Utah Clinical Guidelines on Prescribing Opioids for Treatment of Pain, becoming only the second state in the nation to publish such guidelines. The state has received requests for additional information, resources and copies of the Guidelines from 20 states, including Alaska, Minnesota, New York and Washington.

“There have been many people and organizations involved in achieving this reduction in deaths, including local and national efforts,” said Dr. Robert Rolfs, UDOH State Epidemiologist. “There is still a lot of work to be done to continue this downward trend, and we hope that the numerous groups across Utah will continue a collaborative effort to encourage our residents to use prescription pain medications only as directed.”

Other organizations contributing to this effort include the Utah Department of Human Services through the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, the Zero Deaths campaign, the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, the Department of Environmental Quality and others. The newly formed Pharmaceutical Drug Crime Project will also be working to increase awareness and reduce prescription drug abuse.