Sometimes it takes "celebrity" to bring to light a national issue, in this case a chronic condition for many everyday Americans.
Heath Ledger's death on Jan. 22 was due to an accidental mixture of prescription drugs, New York City's Chief Medical Examiner has concluded.
The autopsy report on Ledger is now public record and counts six prescription drugs as the cause of his death including Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, Diazepam, Temazepam, Alprazolam, and Doxylamine.
It is not likely a single doctor prescribed all of the drugs but rather that they were obtained from numerous sources.
"If someone has an overdose death with that kind of toxicology report, it's usually an indication that they were either doctor-shopping or purchasing medications either on the street or on the Internet," said Andrew Kolodny, a psychiatrist at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn tells Reuters.
Oxycodone is a painkiller, Hydrocodone is also known as Vicodin, Diazepam is commonly called Valium, Temazepam treats anxiety or sleeplessness, Alprazolam is known as Xanax, and Doxylamine is a sedating antihistamine often used as a sleep aid.
It is suspected that the combination of drugs suppressed his respiratory system until Ledger stopped breathing.
Dr. Marc Galanter of NYU Medical Center tells CBS News, “It can be a deadly mix anytime and, you know, it creates a clouding of people’s alertness so they don’t know how much they’re taking.”
Writing to ABC News blog, a former addict says the problem is you don’t think there are limits. “YOU PEOPLE ARE MISSING THE POINT! the reason he [Ledger] had so many different prescription was because he wanted to get HIGH. i know because this is a laundry list of the drugs i took when i was an addict myself. you take the vicodin and oxy to feel good, then the benzos (xanax, valium) to smooth out the edges, and then some sleeping pills to get some rest afterwards. it wasn't a mistake where one drug didn't work so he got something else! its classic painkiller addiction. and YES, he doctor shopped and used multiple pharmacies, even addicts don't know their limits and never think they will OD.”
The actor was found dead in his Manhattan apartment January 22nd with the medication near his body. He had been complaining of anxiety, an inability to sleep, had recently traveled from overseas and reportedly had pneumonia.
A recent revelation by the mother of Britney Spears shows the singer also has a precarious relationship with prescription drugs. In a recent statement by Lynne Spears to a court, Spears says her daughter is being fed a combination of drugs –Adoral, Seroquel and Risperdol by her so-called manager who sometimes crushes them up in drinks and food.
According to the testimony, “He told us that he puts them in her food and that that was the reason she had been quiet for the last three days (she had been sleeping). He told us that the doctor who is treating her now is trying to get her into a sleep-induced coma so that they could then give her drugs to heal her brain.”
Britney was recently hospitalized in a psychiatric unit.
Ledger's family hopes his death shines a spotlight on a long under-reported issue – you are now more likely to die from prescription drugs than recreational ones.
A “pill for what ails you” from headaches to heartache and an underestimation of prescription drugs’ potency has led to a dramatic rise in lethal drug overdosing since the early 1990s.
The CDC reports that from 1999 to 2004, unintentional poisoning death from prescription drugs sleeping pills, antidepressants and tranquilizers grew 84 percent to 20,950 deaths, overtaking cocaine and heroin combined as the leading cause of lethal overdose.
The FDA compiled reports from 1998 to 2005 and finds that dangerous side effects and deaths from prescription and over-the-counter medications almost tripled to nearly 90,000 incidents.
Potent narcotic painkiller OxyContin was among the 15 drugs most often linked to death. Others include insulin, Vioxx, Remicade, and Paxil. Vioxx was removed from the market in 2004.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 1998, a report finds that prescription drugs kill about 106,000 Americans each year – that’s three times as many as are killed by automobiles—making prescription drug death the fourth leading killer after heart disease, cancer and stroke.
Last year Journal of the American Medical Association puts death from all drugs, illegal and prescription, second only behind car accidents as a cause of death.
The rise in deaths coincides with the direct marketing of prescription medication to the public. Prescription drug sales have soared nearly 500 percent since 1990.
You don’t have to wait 30 seconds to see a drug ad on television or head one on the radio. Then there is the confusion that if it is prescribed it can’t be dangerous.
That’s what 46-year-old Lynn Ray thought. Ray is one of about 9 million Americans who use prescription drugs for non-medical purposes.
46-year-old had recently lost her infant son and took a short course of treatment with tranquilizers.
But if she was supposed to take one Xanax over an eight-hour period, she’d take two or three to intensify the calming effect. Doctor-shopping followed while she fabricated different pain symptoms to get multiple prescriptions.
Ray had convinced herself that abusing prescription drugs was safer than abusing heroin, marijuana, and other "street drugs." "I would never do those," she says. "I figured I had a prescription for what I was doing, which made it OK."
Another writes that prescription drug abuse is rampant among teenagers who take pills from their parent’s medicine cabinet. “Maybe now people will realize this is a HUGE problem with teens all over the country, and not just the new 'in' of Hollywood. I am an 18 year old who hears every day about kids my own age talking about these same prescription drugs that are SO easy to get, whether from a parent, friend or direct from the doctor himself. Kids carry these 'Candies' in little containers to school and sell them in the halls between class!”
Every day it’s estimated 2,500 teens abuse a prescription pain killer for the first time.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse reports that among 12th grade students, Vicodin is the most abused followed by amphetamines, tranquilizers and OxyContin (oxycondone).
Almost as if on cue, the White House Office of National Drug Control policy had been planning to unveil an ad campaign to target prescription drug abuse by teens.
But appearing too close to the death of Ledger, the ad campaign began on Super Bowl Sunday. #