Drug poisoning deaths have tripled throughout the country in the last 30 years, with a particular spike in the last decade, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Tuesday.
Since the late 1990s, the percentage of counties with drug poisoning death rates of more than 10 in 100,000 jumped from 3 percent in 1999 to 54 percent in 2009, the researchers found. But drug poisoning deaths have increased just about everywhere.
The study did not distinguish between illegal and prescription drugs but said drug poisoning is the leading cause of injury death in the country and has increased by more than 300 percent in the last three decades. Previous studies have only looked at deaths related to drug poisoning on a broader level, measuring states or countries, but this is the first study to measure the rates by county in the United States.
"Mapping death rates associated with drug poisoning at the county level may help elucidate geographic patterns, highlight areas where drug-related poisoning deaths are higher than expected, and inform policies and programs designed to address the increase in drug-poisoning mortality and morbidity," said lead researcher Lauren Rossen, in a statement.
Almost 90 percent of poisoning deaths of any kind can be attributed to illegal or legal drugs, with prescription drugs making up the majority of drug overdose deaths, the study said.
The researchers said the sharp rise in drug-related poisoning deaths goes hand in hand with the increase in the recreational or non-medical use of prescription drugs, particularly painkillers such as oxycodone and vicodin.
The CDC estimates that overdoses on prescription painkillers have more than tripled in the last 20 years and killed more than 15,500 people nationwide in 2009. But drug overdose deaths are part of a larger overdose problem in the United States, the CDC says.
In the last five years, emergency department visits for prescription painkiller abuse have doubled to nearly 500,000, and about 12 million adults and teenagers said they used prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons.
The researchers analyzed more than 300,000 drug poisoning deaths between 1999 and 2009 and found that drug poisoning death rates grew by nearly 400 percent in rural areas, and by nearly 300 percent in large central metropolitan counties.
In 1999, drug poisoning death rates were fairly similar across the country, with particularly low rates in the Central Plains and the Midwest. But by 2009, the report shows higher rates had emerged in the Pacific, Mountain and East South Central regions of the country, while the lower rates were concentrated in the West North Central region.
In states such as California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and New Mexico, many of the counties had drug poisoning death rates of more than 13 per 100,000 people in 2009. Meanwhile, most counties in Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska had rates of between zero and eight deaths per 100,000.
Likewise, counties with particularly high death rates of more than 29 per 100,000 were largely concentrated in Appalachian counties in 1999. But by 2009, counties across the nation – in Alaska, Hawaii, New Mexico, Louisiana and Mississippi – had such high rates.