U.S. doctors write more painkiller prescriptions than there are adults in the country

U.S. doctors write more painkiller prescriptions than there are adults in the country

VicesDecember 12, 2016 By Reilly Capps

About 300 million painkiller prescriptions were written in 2015 in a country with only 250 million adults. Every man and woman alive today could conceivably have a bottle of oxycodone, fentanyl, morphine, dilaudid, vicodin or percocet on their bedside table right now — with 50 million left over to split amongst the herd.

More than one in three adults were given painkiller prescriptions last year: 35 percent. That means currently prescription painkillers are more widely used than tobacco, which commands about 31 percent of Americans. And they're far more used than marijuana, which many scientists agree is a safer alternative for pain. It's used by about 13 percent of people in the country.

There isn't any doubt prescription painkillers can be useful drugs. Without them, recovering from major surgery or enduring the pain of cancer treatments would be almost unbearable. But in the last two decades, hundreds of millions of people have realized they're also fun. On them you feel loopy, warm, happy and giggly.

Which is all well and good. Except there were 20,000 overdose deaths from prescription painkillers in 2015 as well, making it one of the country's leading causes of accidental deaths. Painkillers are not the most dangerous drugs we have — alcohol remains the undisputed devil, killing 88,000 people every year — but they're close.

These aren't just abstract numbers. These are real people.

David Budd aspires to go back to school, but is currently jobless, lives in a hotel and struggles with addiction to meth. He doesn't have a prescription drug problem; he volunteers at Denver's Harm Reduction Action Center handing out needles. Because of his position, he says he hears about "doctors getting too prescription happy," becoming unintentional drug dealers. And hooking folks on drugs. 

For the most part, this isn't the doctors' fault. For years, patients were asked to rate the care they received from their doctors. One of the categories was pain management. Doctors wanted good scores, and pain is easy to manage: you just throw opium at it. So they prescribed and prescribed. And pain got managed. And everyone was happy ... for a while.

But what followed was the familiar story of unintended consequences that tends to happens when fallible humans dabble in powerful drugs.

Patients got addicted. And, from the doctors' perspective, this turned the patients into nightmares. Their physical symptoms never seemed to get better. They just kept showing up asking for higher dosages. Their nervous systems crumbled; things that wouldn't hurt regular people caused them extreme agony. Patients treated their depression or anxiety with pills. Their suffering worsened. Then they got pushy and needy, doctors say, and the easiest way to deal with them was just to write them the script. If they didn't, the patient would often just "doctor shop" until they found a doctor who would.

Kerry Broderick, a doctor in the emergency department at Denver's county hospital, Denver Health, says that doctors across the country are trying to stop writing the prescriptions so often. But, she says that, too, has unintended consequences. "The patients that are truly addicted," when they get their prescriptions taken away, "it drives them toward heroin." That may sound drastic, but heroin is actually less potent than some of these prescription painkillers, especially fentanyl and dilaudid.

But all of this, Broderick says, has made the scene in her ER, with overdoses, withdrawals, and bullshitters faking illnesses so they can get her to write them scripts, "100 fold worse."

And so the painkiller crisis rolls on, piling up bodies. On Thursday, the government announced that, for the first time, heroin deaths have surpassed gun homicides.

There are 270 million guns in America and, again, were over 300 million painkiller prescriptions written last year alone. Are painkillers more deadly than guns now? The numbers suggest they are.