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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- More people died from prescription drug abuse in Utah last year than in traffic accidents, state health department officials said Tuesday.
Of the 476 drug-related deaths investigated by the Office of the Medical Examiner in 2006, nearly two-thirds -- or 307 -- were from an overdose of legal drugs. Of the victims, whose average age was 42, 51 percent were male.
Utah had 274 traffic fatalities in 2006.
"Prescription drug deaths, all drug deaths, actually are an epidemic in Utah," said Dr. Todd Grey, Utah's chief medical examiner.
All but four counties in Utah had at least one death from a legal drug overdose and only about one-third of the state's drug related deaths were from the use of illicit, illegal drugs, primarily cocaine and heroin, Grey said.
Among the prescription narcotics most commonly linked to overdose deaths are methadone, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl. Deaths occur most commonly when multiple drugs are used, Grey said. Data from the medical examiner's office shows a common lethal drug mix includes narcotics with a sleep aid and an anti-anxiety drug, he said.
"Quite frankly, it's something we have to do something about," said Grey, adding that "2007 is certainly on track for being even worse in terms of prescription-related deaths that my office is investigating."
A task force mandated by the Utah Legislature will study prescription drug abuse over the next two years.
Comprised of experts from the Utah Department of Health, the medical examiner, Labor Commission, Division of Occupational and Professional Licensure and the office of the Utah Attorney General, the group is charged with developing best practices guidelines for prescription pain medication use for doctors and education programs for the public.
"This is going to enable us to save hundreds and hundreds of lives," Utah Department of Health Executive Director David Sundwall said.
A primary tool for the task force will be Utah's Controlled Substance Database, which since 1996 has recorded the more than 32 million prescriptions issued by physicians to patients statewide. Held by the licensure department the information is currently used to track patients who "doctor shop" or physicians writing an inordinate number of prescriptions and could provide the task force with information about the growth and patterns of legal-drug use in Utah.
The challenge for the task force will be to "find a balance between the education of the risks with the very legitimate need by some to use the medications," state epidemiologist Dr. Robert Rolfs said.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)