The Prescription Drug Epidemic

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Prescription drug abuse is now worse than the crack epidemic. Oxycontin. Xanax. Pill mills. Doctor shopping. We’ll get the full story.


Thursday, On Point: the pipeline and price of a pain killer epidemic."

Prescription drug abuse is sky-rocketing in the United States as accidental overdose deaths now exceed crack deaths in the 1980s. Overdose from prescription painkillers like Oxycontin and Xanax is now the leading cause of accidental death in 17 states.

In Kentucky, particularly in the Appalachian region, prescription drug overdoses run rampant, according to Laura Ungar, a reporter for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.

In Kentucky, “prescription drug over doses deaths have skyrocketed in the past decade," Ungar told On Point. "They rose from about 400 [deaths] in 2000 to 978 [deaths] in 2009. You can see the growing toll that it is taking.”

On Point caller Michelle in Carter County, Ky., grew up with her mother addicted to prescription medications.

“We would wake up in middle night and have to put her to bed because she was like a zombie," Michelle said. "It was like no one was there.” Michelle is now going to school to be a drug abuse therapist.

Many addicts start taking prescription pain medication for a legitimate injury. (AP)
Many addicts start taking prescription pain medication for a legitimate injury. (AP)

Deaths due to overdose of prescription medications are outstripping overdoses by traditional drugs like crack-cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine. Ungar says that the prescription drug trade is “akin to the illegal drug trade, where many of our folks in Kentucky are getting drugs that originated in Florida.”

In fact, 98 of the nation’s top 100 prescribers of such drugs are in Florida — the “pill mill” end of a pipeline feeding a mounting epidemic of prescription drug abuse across the United States. Pharmaceutical pain killers are now churned out of “pill mills” and end up in poor counties in West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

The toll is high as regulation catches up to the addiction epidemic. West Virginia, where Alison Knezevich is a reporter for The Charleston Gazette, has the nation’s highest rate of drug deaths.

“In one small town where I did interviews, the local prosecutor said that he feared an entire generation had been lost to prescription drug abuse,” Knezevich told On Point.


Laura Ungar, reporter for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. She co-authored a series in January for the paper titled “Prescription for Tragedy” about the prescription drug problem in Kentucky.

Alison Knezevich, reporter for The Charleston Gazette. This past January she wrote a series for the paper “Pillage: Prescription Drug Abuse in West Virginia.”

Janet Zink, reporter in the Tallahassee bureau for the Saint Petersburg Times and Miami Herald. She has been covering the crackdown on the pill mills in Florida.

This program aired on May 12, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.