According to a report released Thursday by the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, 5 percent of all deaths in 2009 were attributable to prescription drug use, far outnumbering those caused by illegal substances.

The report indicates the most frequently occurring drugs found in decedents were ethyl alcohol (4,046), all Benzodiazepines (3,379), Oxycodone (1,948) and cocaine (1,462). The drugs that caused the most deaths were Oxycodone, all Benzodiazepines (with Alprazolam, also known as Xanax, accounting for the majority of the deaths), methadone, ethyl alcohol, cocaine, morphine and Hydrocodone.

Oxycodone, the generic version of the Purdue Pharma brand name prescription pain-killer OxyContin, was the cause of 1,185 state deaths in 2009, a 26-percent increase from the year before and a whopping 249-percent increase from 2005.

“Prescription and over-the-counter abuse is growing faster than any other drug segment and law enforcement is responding with aggressive enforcement,” said Gerald Bailey, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. “FDLE and our partners are working daily to target traffickers, take out pill mills and stop doctors who prescribe pain medicine without medical necessity.”

“The illegal diversion and abuse of prescription drugs continues to be our greatest public health threat,” said Bruce Grant, director of the Office of Drug Control. “Prescription drugs killed 2,488 Floridians in 2009, equivalent to nearly seven deaths per day. The vast majority of these tragic deaths are due to accidental overdose, the risk of which is greatly enhanced by the mixing of potent, pure and potentially poisonous prescription painkillers and depressants.”

There is also evidence to support the claim that the numbers could actually be much higher:

Ken Kramer, a researcher with the Citizens Commission on Human Rights of Florida, says the numbers underestimate the extent of the problem, because medical examiners do not track deaths attributed to antipsychotic drugs or to antidepressants, both of which carry black-box or black-label warnings. The warnings on antidepressants, required by the Food and Drug Administration, state that the drugs increase the risk of suicidal thinking and behavior in children, adolescents and young adults up to age 24. (Antidepressants include Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, Effexor, Lexapro and Celexa.)

“Certainly, the actual number of prescription drug deaths is higher than the annual report states,” Kramer said. “It is unknown just how much higher because the Medical Examiners Commission does not track these classes of drugs.”

The report also indicated that while prescription drug-related deaths are on the rise, deaths caused by some illegal drugs have declined. Heroin deaths decreased by 20 percent to 111, and cocaine deaths decreased by 18.4 percent to 529.

Law enforcement officials have attributed the opposing trends to the fact that prescription drugs are much easier and cheaper to obtain than illegal drugs.

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