Background: New Mexico has the highest rate of drug-induced mortality in the United States. The contribution of prescription drugs to the total overdose death rate has not been adequately described.
Methods: A total of 1,906 unintentional drug overdose deaths occurring in 1994 to 2003 in New Mexico were analyzed. Unintentional drug overdose death was defined as death caused by prescription, illicit, or a combination of drugs, as determined by a pathologist. Deaths were investigated annually by the medical examiner and data were analyzed in 2004-2005. Rates and trends of total and prescription drug overdose death were calculated, decedent characteristics were analyzed, and common drug combinations causing death were described.
Results: The rate of unintentional prescription drug overdose death increased by 179% (1.9 to 5.3/100,000) from 1994 to 2003. A high percentage of prescription drug overdose decedents were white non-Hispanic (63.2%) and female (43.9%). These decedents were older and less frequently had alcohol listed as an additional cause of death than decedents of other drug overdose categories. Of all deaths caused by prescription drug(s) (n =765), 590 (77.1%) were caused by opioid painkillers, 263 (34.4%) by tranquilizers, and 196 (25.6%) by antidepressants.
Conclusions: The rate of prescription drug overdose death in New Mexico increased significantly over the 10-year study period. Comprehensive surveillance of drug overdose deaths is recommended to describe their occurrence in the context of both medical and diverted use of prescription drugs. Understanding decedent profiles and the potential risk factors for prescription drug overdose death is crucial for effective drug overdose prevention education among healthcare providers.