Drug deaths top 2,000 in a year in Pa., 1,000 in N.J.

Posted: June 21, 2014

Americans' treacherous relationship with prescription painkillers and other drugs appears to be worsening, with fatal overdoses up 7 percent in one year, according to new federal statistics.

Deaths increased at double the national rate in New Jersey, and triple in Pennsylvania.

In 2011, for the first time, drug-related deaths topped 1,000 in New Jersey and 2,000 in Pennsylvania. More than 41,000 people died nationwide.

Despite the increase, New Jersey's drug poisoning rate remained well below the national average, placing it 36th out of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia.

Pennsylvania ranked seventh nationally, moving up from 14th the previous year. It leapt over Delaware, now ranked ninth, one of 11 states that experienced declines.

"It is no longer possible to shut our eyes and wish the problem will just go away," said Beverly Haberle, executive director of the Council of Southeast Pennsylvania, the regional affiliate of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

"Everyone can get involved and play a role in solving this tragic problem," she said.

Drug mortality rates have more than doubled in a decade nationwide, driven largely by skyrocketing use and abuse of prescription narcotics, mainly painkillers.

The latest data, from the National Center for Health Statistics, do not separate classes of drugs, though studies have found that deaths from prescription opioids now exceed those from cocaine and heroin combined.

At the same time, the epidemic has triggered increases in heroin use, as addicts build up tolerance to pharmaceutical opioids and turn to heroin as a far cheaper and stronger alternative - albeit a more deadly one.

Heroin-related fatalities have increased sharply over the last few years in Philadelphia and even more so in many rural and suburban counties.

A similar pattern appears around the city of Camden.

"I would say that over the last three or four years, the stereoptypical heroin user in the city was, much as it is now, a person from the suburbs," Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson said in a recent interview. "That has remained constant. What has changed is the volume."

Of 205 drug overdoses - 19 of them fatal - reported this year in Camden through the first week of June, Thomson said, 138 were people who lived outside the city and had likely traveled in to buy drugs.

Nationally, as in New Jersey, overdoses from both legal and illegal drugs are primarily a phenomenon among whites, with fatality rates for non-Hispanic whites in 2011 nearly double those for African Americans and nearly triple the rates for Hispanics. Men ages 40 to 54 were most likely to die.

The high risk was spread more broadly in Pennsylvania - among those ages 25 to 59. But there also were deaths among children younger than 5. And death rates were similar for blacks and non-Hispanic whites, both about 50 percent more than Hispanics.

Overall, the rate of drug poisoning deaths was 18.34 per 100,000 Pennsylvania residents, compared with 11.3 in New Jersey and 13.16 nationally in 2011.

"And 2012, '13, '14 will be really terrible," said Gregg B. Wolfe of Voorhees, who lost his 21-year-old son, Justin, to a heroin overdose on Dec. 19, 2012.

"The more schools I go to, the more groups I go to, the more people I meet, [they tell me about] people who have overdosed in the last two or three years," said Wolfe, who raises awareness in person and through his website, http://squashthesecret.net.

Pennsylvania State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R., Bucks) has introduced bills in Harrisburg to address the issue in various ways. None has won final passage so far, though he is hoping for action next week.

"It is heartbreaking," DiGirolamo said Thursday. "I'm tired of talking with these moms and dads who have lost their kids."


dsapatkin@phillynews.com

215-854-2617

@DonSapatkin

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