Prescription Drug Overdose

In the United States, drug overdose death rates more than tripled since 1990. Every day, more than 100 people die from drug overdoses. Most of these deaths are caused by prescription drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the recent surge in drug overdose death rates is a result of increasing abuse and misuse of prescription opioid painkillers.

  • In 2010, prescription painkillers killed more than 16,500 people in the U.S., more than twice as many as cocaine and heroin combined.

  • In 2011, healthcare providers prescribed more than four times as many painkillers as in 1999, and at the same time prescription painkiller deaths increased.  

  • A small percentage of providers, roughly 20 percent, are responsible for 80 percent of all prescription painkillers in 2010.

  • In 2012, an estimated 12.5 million people reported using prescription painkillers without a prescription.

Death Rates for Drug Poisoning, 2010
Age-Adjusted* Death Rates per 100,000 people

death rates for drug poisoning

*Age-adjusted death rates allows a comparison of death rates between states where there are differences in the population’s age distribution.

Sources: National Conference of State Legislatures, 2013; and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013.

Options for Policymakers

The prescription drug overdose epidemic is closely tied to changes in medical prescribing practices. With Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs) and other policy changes, states identifying and preventing inappropriate prescribing. These actions also protect patients at the highest risk for overdose, and equip doctors with the tools and information needed to treat patients safely and appropriately. Key policy options include:

  • Maintain and strengthen PDMPs, including making them interoperable, which ensures providers have real-time access to PDMP data, and provides unsolicited reports to prescribers, pharmacists, licensing boards and law enforcement agencies.

  • Consider pain clinic laws that aim to prevent inappropriate prescribing of painkillers and regulate pain clinics that operate using inappropriate medical and prescribing practices.

  • Ensure that providers follow evidence-based guidelines for safe and effective use of prescription painkillers.

  • Encourage healthcare provider licensure boards to enforce licensing standards proactively when inappropriate prescribing patterns are detected.

  • Support patient review and restriction programs, also called “lock in” programs, in public insurance plans to identify and prevent improper patient use of prescription drugs.

Additional Resources

NCSL's Prevention of Prescription Drug Overdose and Abuse Legislative Tracking:

CDC and other federal and state agencies have resources and information available to help prevent prescription drug overdoses before they occur.