In 2016, more than 40% of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid. The most common drugs involved in these overdoses were methadone, oxycodone (e.g. OxyContin) and hydrocodone (e.g. Vicodin®). From 2000 to 2015, Utah experienced a nearly 400% spike in deaths from the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs. Utah had the seventh highest drug overdose rate in the U.S. in 2016, with 635 deaths. Of the 10 Utahns who died every week from drug overdoses in 2016, 60% were attributed to prescription opioids. The current Utah budget is about $7 million, which helps only 27% of drug abusers eligible for Medicaid. Mirroring the rest of the nation, the majority of prescription opioid deaths in Utah involved concurrent use of other drugs.
- On average, 7,000 opioid prescriptions are filled every day in Utah.
- Although 2015 was the first decrease in the rate of prescription opioid deaths in Utah since 2009, 24 individuals still died every month from a prescription opioid overdose.
- Of 357 prescription drug overdose deaths in 2015, 282 were attributed to opioids.
- Deaths from oxycodone drugs (e.g. OxyContin and Percocet) accounted for 55.0% of all prescription opioid deaths in 2015, while hydrocodone accounted for 17.7% of deaths.
- Individuals aged 45-54 had the highest prescription opioid overdose deaths rates, with no major gender differences.
- The highest rates of Utah ER visits for prescription opioid overdoses were in individuals aged 25-34.
Prescription Drug Overdose Deaths in Utah
In Utah, the following percentages provide a picture of the most serious co-occurring problems in individuals who died from prescription drug overdoses.
- Substance abuse (e.g. illegal drugs, abuse of prescription medications or regular use of inhalants): 65%
- Mental illness diagnosis: 62%
- Physical health problems: 61%
- History of alcohol dependence or problematic use: 16%
- Past suicide attempt: 10%
The Path to Heroin Abuse
A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates heroin overdose deaths have soared in Utah, more than tripling since 2007. In 2016, 166 Utah residents fatally overdosed on heroin compared to 127 the prior year. “When they get to a point where they can’t get prescription opioids, where they can’t afford them, then they’re turning to heroin because it’s cheaper to get,” said Jenny Johnson, Utah Department of Health (UDOH) spokeswoman. “We’re seeing a decrease in our prescription opioid deaths,” said Anna Fondario, UDOH epidemiology manager. “But in our illicit opioid deaths, we are seeing increases.”
- In 2014-2015, about 5,000 individuals aged 12 or older in Utah used heroin in the past year, which is in line with the national average.
- In a single-day count in 2015, 2,459 and 790 individuals received methadone and buprenorphine, respectively, in Utah opioid treatment programs as part of their substance use treatment.
- The highest rates of Utah ER visits for heroin were in individuals aged 18-24.
Efforts to Curb Abuse
On May 31, 2018, Utah filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, accusing the manufacturer of OxyContin of creating a drug epidemic in the state. In the court filing, the state claimed Purdue waged an aggressive marketing campaign for its drugs that relied on deception, exaggeration and flawed science. The lawsuit stated Purdue’s actions amounted to fraud, negligence, nuisance and a violation of state consumer sales law. In filing the lawsuit, Utah joined other attorneys general who filed their own lawsuits against Purdue, Johnson & Johnson and opioid distributor McKesson Corp. Separately, more than 700 cities and counties have sued the drug manufacturers and distributors in cases consolidated before a federal judge in Cleveland, with the first trial scheduled for March 2019.
Utah Take Back Program
Data shows nearly 60% of people in Utah prescribed an opioid in the past year had leftover medication and only 27% reported disposing it. A joint effort of the Utah Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Utah Take Back is a day set aside to collect potentially dangerous expired, unused or unwanted prescription drugs. Last fall, more than 3,800 federal, state and local agencies collected 702,365 pounds of unused, expired, or unwanted medications at more than 5,000 collection sites across the U.S. During the 2017 event, Utah collected more than 33,000 pounds of prescription drugs to dispose of properly. Attorney General Sean D. Reyes issued this statement in April 2018:
“Prescription drug abuse and deaths related to opioids have risen to epidemic levels in Utah and across the country. Opioid addiction has ravaged rural and urban areas as well as uptown and downtown neighborhoods. It has taken far too many lives and ruined countless more. Those who suffer from addiction may be soccer moms or executives. They can be star athletes, high achieving students, popular kids or “loners.” They are our kids, grandkids and kids from the block. And whether we realize it or not, our medicine cabinets might be the very place where they are looking or have already been for their next high or pill party.”
Naloxone Distribution Saves Lives
As a result of a statewide standing order issued by the UDOH on December 8, 2016, pharmacies across the state dispensed 4,275 doses of naloxone in 2017. Naloxone is a rescue medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Data indicate 99 naloxone overdose reversals occurred as a direct result of outreach efforts by the UDOH, local agencies and syringe exchange providers across the state. While pharmacies in rural areas of the state only comprise an estimated 30% of all participating pharmacies enrolled through the standing order, they distributed nearly 70% or 2,914 of naloxone doses in 2017.
Pharmacists and healthcare providers can play an integral role in curbing prescription opioid deaths by discussing the risks of opioids, signs of an opioid overdose and the efficacy of naloxone to reverse overdoses. In some cases, it may be more effective for medical professionals to encourage individuals to seek professional treatment for opioid addiction than when family members urge them to do so.