Americans' treacherous relationship with prescription painkillers and other drugs appears to be worsening, with fatal overdoses up 7 percent in one year - and twice that rate of increase in New Jersey and triple in Pennsylvania, according to new federal statistics. Drug-related deaths for the first time topped 1,000 in New Jersey and 2,000 in Pennsylvania in 2011; more than 41,000 died nationwide.
Despite the increase, New Jersey's drug poisoning rate remained well below the national average, placing it 36th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Pennsylvania ranked 7th nationally, moving from 14th the previous year. It leapt over Delaware, now ranked 9th, one of 11 states that experienced declines.
"This data clearly documents the severity of this growing epidemic throughout Pennsylvania," Beverly Haberle, executive director of The Council of Southeast Pennsylvania, the regional affiliate of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, said Thursday. "It is no longer possible to shut our eyes and wish the problem will just go away. Everyone can get involved and play a role in solving this tragic problem."
Drug deaths have more than doubled in a decade nationwide, driven largely by skyrocketing use and abuse of prescription narcotics, mainly painkillers. The latest data do not separate classes of drugs, although other studies have found that deaths from prescription opioids now exceed those from cocaine and heroin combined.
At the same time, the epidemic has triggered increases in heroin use as people build up tolerance to pharmaceutical opioids and turn to heroin as a far cheaper, stronger - and even more deadly - alternative.
Heroin-related fatalities have increased sharply over the past few years in Philadelphia and even more so in the suburbs.