Recent revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) spied on the heads of state of countries allied with the United States – even after President Obama promised to end such spying – have sparked new debates about U.S. surveillance culture.
Yet, in a country that is increasingly collecting myriad forms of private data about all its citizens, one form of data goes surprisingly unrecorded: When a U.S. resident dies of a drug overdose, there is no requirement that the type of drug involved be recorded. This shocking absence of data collection obscures which drugs are the most dangerous, protecting pharmaceutical industry profits, while continuing to put lives at risk.
Epidemic of prescription drug deaths
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “the United States is in the midst of a prescription painkiller overdose epidemic.” The CDC reports that while there has been no overall increase in the pain burden of the U.S. population since 1999, the number of painkiller prescriptions filled in that time has quadrupled, leading to a consequent increase in addiction and abuse. The situation is so dire, that 44 people die each day from prescription painkiller overdoses.
A large part of the problem, the CDC says, is that opioid painkillers (also known as narcotic painkillers), are increasingly being prescribed for uses other than those for which they are intended.
The drugs are only meant to be used for moderate-to-severe pain related to injury, surgery or certain specific health conditions, such as cancer.
The agency notes that benzodiazepine tranquilizers are also a common cause of overdose deaths.
CDC collects data on patients, not drugs
Ironically, the CDC does promote drug tracking as one of the most effective methods for reducing drug deaths – but it focuses on tracking prescriptions, not overdose deaths. The agency encourages states to adopt Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs), which, consistent with other U.S. surveillance measures, collect a wide range of information on regular people’s habits in order to identify potential criminals.
PDMPs are state-run electronic databases that track the prescriptions of individuals, and are automatically monitored (by computer software) for suspicious prescribing patterns that might suggest drug abuse or diversion. PDMPs also flag individuals who may be at high-risk for developing such patterns in the future.
The CDC lauds the surveillance-heavy PDMPs as “among the most promising interventions to improve painkiller prescribing, inform clinical practice, and protect patients,” even while acknowledging that “findings are mixed.”
But when it comes to knowing which prescription drugs contribute directly to people’s deaths – data that could lead to changes in prescribing practices or even in drug regulations – the National Institute on Drug Abuse says, “The U.S. government does not track death rates for every drug.”
The same document notes that the CDC “does collect information on many of the more commonly used drugs,” and “has a searchable database, called CDC Wonder.”
But CDC Wonder records death statistics only for certain categories of drugs, not for the individual drugs themselves. And even these categories are limited (and of questionable usefulness): narcotics and hallucinogens are tracked together; nonopioid painkillers are lumped with anti-inflammatories and fever-reducers; and anti-seizure drugs are lumped with sedatives, antipsychotics, antidepressants and anti-Parkinson’s drugs. These are the only “specific” categories that the CDC supplies in its database. The other drug-related categories are “other drugs acting on the autonomic nervous system,” “other and unspecified drugs” and “alcohol.”
A few other drug categories are tracked, but all of these are related to medical accidents rather than to patient overdose.
So when will the government change its data collection practices? Probably not any time soon; it’s much more profitable to track private citizens, than the corporate products that are killing them.
Sources for this article include: