Florida’s Deadliest Rx Drug is Not a Painkiller

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new report from Florida’s Medical Examiners Commission is debunking a popular myth about the overdose crisis.

The most deadly prescription drugs in the state are not opioid painkillers, but benzodiazepines – a class of anti-anxiety medication that includes Xanax (alprazolam) and Valium (diazepam).  Xanax alone killed more Floridians last year (813) than oxycodone (723).

The medical examiners analyzed toxicology and autopsy results for 11,910 people who died in Florida in 2016, noting not only what drugs were present at the time of death, but which drug actually caused the deaths.

The distinction is important and more accurate than the death certificate (ICD) codes often used by the CDC, which merely list the drugs that were present. Critics have long contended that CDC researchers cherry pick ICD data to inflate the number of deaths "involving" or "linked" to opioid medication, in some cases counting the same death twice.   

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Florida made an effort to get the numbers right.

“Florida’s medical examiners were asked to distinguish between the drugs determined to be the cause of death and those drugs that were present in the body at the time of death. A drug is indicated as the cause of death only when, after examining all evidence, the autopsy, and toxicology results, the medical examiner determines the drug played a causal role in the death,” the report explains.  “A decedent often is found to have multiple drugs listed as present; these are drug occurrences and are not equivalent to deaths.”

The five drugs found most frequently in Florida overdoses were alcohol, benzodiazepines, cocaine, cannabinoids and morphine. The medical examiners noted that heroin rapidly metabolizes into morphine, which probably led to a substantial over-reporting of morphine-related deaths, as well as a significant under-reporting of heroin-related deaths.

Benzodiazepines also played a prominent role as the cause of death, finishing second behind cocaine as the drug most likely to kill someone.  Benzodiazepines were responsible for almost twice as many deaths in Florida in 2016 than oxycodone. Like opioids, benzodiazepines can slow respiration and cause someone to stop breathing if they take too many pills.

DRUG CAUSED DEATHS IN FLORIDA (2016)

Source: Florida Medical Examiners Commission

As in other states, deaths caused by cocaine, heroin and illicit fentanyl have soared in Florida in recent years. In just one year, the number of overdose deaths there jumped 22 percent from 2015 to 2016.

"We don't talk about it much now there's the opioid crisis, but cocaine and alcohol are still a huge issue, there are still a lot of deaths due to those things," Florida addiction treatment director Dustin Perry told the Pensacola News Journal.

Florida is not an outlier. Several other states are also using toxicology reports to improve their analysis of drugs involved in overdose deaths and getting similar findings.  In Massachusetts, deaths linked to illicit fentanyl, benzodiazepines, heroin and cocaine vastly outnumber deaths involving opioid medication.  Prescription opioids were present in only 16 percent of the overdose deaths in Massachusetts during the second quarter of 2017.

 SOURCE: MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

SOURCE: MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

Although it is becoming clear that many different types of drugs -- opioids and non-opioids -- are fueling the nation’s overdose crisis, politicians, the media and public health officials still insist on calling it an “opioid epidemic” or an “opioid crisis” -- diverting attention and resources away from other drugs that are just as dangerous when abused.  We never hear about a Xanax epidemic or a Valium crisis.

President Trump's opioid commission recognized the need to improve drug overdose data when it released its final report this month.

"The Commission recommends the Federal Government work with the states to develop and implement standardized rigorous drug testing procedures, forensic methods, and use of appropriate toxicology instrumentation in the investigation of drug-related deaths. We do not have sufficiently accurate and systematic data from medical examiners around the country to determine overdose deaths, both in their cause and the actual number of deaths,” the commission found.