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May 08, 2015

Report: Seven die of drugs every day in Pennsylvania

State Coroners Association releases sobering data

Every day, on average, seven people die from drug-related causes in Pennsylvania, according to a report out this week.

The report by the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association reported 2,489 deaths in 2014 from drug poisoning.

Philadelphia saw the most drug deaths – 606 – last year in the region, followed by Bucks County with 205 deaths. There were 149 deaths reported by Delaware County and 82 by Chester County. Other counties reporting the most deaths include Allegheny (303) and York (120).

(Montgomery County did not share data with the coroners' association, but a March 9, 2015 preliminary report by a county Overdose Task Force said there 134 drug-related deaths in 2013 – an increase of 61 percent in just four years.)

The report included a poignant poem written by a young woman, Natalie Cribari, to her younger sister about dangers of abusing drugs.

The coroners' analysis indicates drug-related deaths continue to increase. The year 2014 showed that drug-related deaths increased by about 20 percent over the previous year for many of the state's counties. Initial data for 2015 suggests the number of deaths will continue to increase, the report indicated.

Unfortunately, the figures likely understate the drug problem, called an epidemic by many experts and officials, as just 54 of the 67 counties shared data with the association.

According to Susan M. Shanaman, legislative liaison for the association, 800 deaths, or 32 percent of them, involved heroin. Opioids were present in 25 percent of the deaths. The remainder of the drugs present were antihistamines, antidepressants, benzodiazepines, antipsychotics, muscle relaxers, and hypnotics.

"With at least seven Pennsylvanians dying every day due to drug-related overdose, it is clear that Pennsylvania is dealing with a major health crisis," said Gary Tennis, acting secretary of the state's Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, in a statement. "The details provided in the report are invaluable; they will help federal, state and local officials better target our emergency care, prevention, intervention, and treatment services, as well as help law enforcement most effectively focus its efforts to protect our citizens."

Most deaths are the result of multiple prescription drugs either alone or with the addition of heroin or cocaine, to a lesser degree. Eight percent of the toxicology reports in the drug-related deaths are methadone and suboxone (buprenorphine), two opiods generally prescribed to treat addiction.

The age of the deceased ranges from 4 months to 85 years of age. The slight majority of deaths are found among those 41 – 50 years old, but with all the age groups of 20 through 61 almost equal in the number of deaths. 

The typical decedent is white, male, aged 41 – 50 and single. 

Statewide drug-related deaths occur throughout the year with a slight increase in May, the report said. Deaths generally occur on the weekends and Wednesday.

The number statewide of people who overdose on drugs and survive is unknown, the report said.