While deaths from overdoses of heroin and narcotic painkillers like Oxycontin have surged in recent years, a new report finds the same thing is happening with widely used sedatives such as Xanax, Valium and Ativan. In 2013, overdoses from these drugs, called benzodiazepines, accounted for 31 percent of the nearly 23,000 deaths from prescription drug overdoses in the United States, researchers said.
“As more benzodiazepines were prescribed, more people have died from overdoses involving these drugs,” said study author Dr. Joanna Starrels, an associate professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
“In 2013, more than 5 percent of American adults filled prescriptions for benzodiazepines,” she said. “And the overdose death rate increased more than four times from 1996 to 2013.”
This epidemic hasn’t received the attention it deserves, Starrels added. “There’s been a large public health response to the epidemic of prescription narcotics use and addiction and overdose, but there has not been much response to the increase in prescription benzodiazepine deaths,” she said.
The rate of deaths from benzodiazepines is still lower than deaths from narcotic overdoses, but these deaths often involve narcotics as well. “About 75 percent of overdoses that involve benzodiazepines also involve narcotics,” Starrels said.
Benzodiazepines are sedatives and can slow breathing, “particularly when taken with alcohol or narcotics such as Oxycontin or heroin,” she said.
For the study, Starrels and colleagues used data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, which tracks drug prescriptions, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which monitors deaths from drug overdoses. The data covered the years 1996 to 2013.