Overdose deaths from prescription pain pills are increasing rapidly in Washington, according to data the state Department of Health released Wednesday.
Pain pill deaths in the state increased 90 percent between 2003 and 2008, the department said. More residents between ages 35 and 54 now die from pain pill overdoses than from car crashes, the biggest killer in that age group for most of the 20th century.
The drugs that most often lead to accidental deaths are vicodin, oxycontin and methadone, all opioids, the report said.
“On the inside, they’re a lot like heroin would be,” state epidemiologist Jennifer Sabel said. “Groups that have substance abuse histories are particularly at risk.”
In 2007, 447 people died from pain pill overdoses in Washington. In 2008, the latest year for which data are available, 505 died.
Hospitalizations involving prescription pain medications increased similarly in that time, rising from 572 in 2007 to 646 in 2008.
The death rate per 100,000 population for overdose from prescription pain medications was highest in Stevens, Clallam, Spokane, Grant and Snohomish counties.
The death rate for Stevens County was 18.6 per 100,000 people, compared with 6.8 in both Pierce and King counties.
Ryann Thill, an investigator with the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office, said 115 people died of all accidental drug overdoses in the county last year.
That was fewer than 2008, when 125 people died, but a significant increase over previous years, Thill said. In 2004, there were 66 accidental drug overdoses in the county.
Those numbers include overdoses from both prescription drugs and illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine, Thill said, whereas the latest state numbers count only prescription drugs.
Most drug overdose deaths in Pierce County are from prescription drugs, Thill said, but the Medical Examiner’s Office has not separated the two categories for 2009.
“We’re seeing a little bit higher death rates for males, but not hugely so,” Sabel said.
Abuse of pain medications is increasing most rapidly in the 18-to-24 age group, Sabel said, even though fewer younger people are dying from overdoses.
“The general feeling is that things just catch up to you more when you’re older,” she said.