With a towering mound of pain pills next to him, Gov. Rick Scott Monday offered a hopeful snapshot from the front lines of Florida’s fight against epidemic prescription drug abuse.
Sales of oxycodone — a pain medication that has plagued Florida as the No. 1 cause of prescription drug deaths last year — are down 17 percent for the first five months of 2011, he reported during a news conference at the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office, underscoring the deadly nature of the public health crisis.
The news came as the state released a report that outlined in grim detail the human toll of the abuse. Deaths caused by prescription drugs last year were up about 9 percent. Of the state’s 9,001 drug-related deaths, more than half — about 5,600 — died with one or more prescription medications in their systems.
“Over seven people a day are dying of drug overdoses. I have had drug abuse in my family and it’s just devastating,’’ Scott said. “But there are good things to see. The number of purchases [by pharmacies and practitioners] are down.’’
Scott said the state — considered by many as the nation’s capital of prescription drug abuse — is aggressively attacking the problem through anti-pill mill legislation, a state-wide law enforcement task force and increased emphasis on the role of doctors, suspending the licenses of those who dole out prescriptions of highly addictive pain killers with little or no medical justification.
Since its launch in late March, Florida’s Statewide Drug Enforcement Strike Force has targeted distribution and supply points across the state, resulting in 937 arrests, including 17 doctors, and the seizure of 252,410pharmaceutical pills and nearly $1.7 million in cash. Four doctors were arrested in the Miami region.
The accompanying reduction in pain pill sales by pharmacies and healthcare practitioners offers evidence that the approach is working, Scott said.
“With a drop that dramatic, I think it’s safe to say our multi-faceted approach is making a difference,’’ said Scott, who was joined by Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey and State Surgeon General Frank Farmer.“These are early statistics but very encouraging. But this is a fight every day.’’
Scott even pointed to his own personal dealings with a family member struggling with drugs.
“I have a brother who has been on drugs all of his life,’’ Scott said, adding that he had been unsuccessful at helping him over the years.
On Monday, the strike force began destroying more than 357,000 pills that were voluntarily surrendered by physicians.
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