The prescription painkiller oxycodone was the leading cause of drug-related death in Florida in 2008, according to figures released Tuesday.
Nowhere in the state was the drug tied to more deaths than in Pinellas and Pasco counties. Of 941 state deaths linked to oxycodone, 209 occurred in the two-county area, according to a report from the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.
Deaths related to oxycodone, which has been in the news as a suspect in the sudden death of Michael Jackson, were up 33.5 percent in Florida from the year before. In Hillsborough County, oxycodone, the active ingredient in drugs like OxyContin, was linked to 101 deaths in 2008.
Hydrocodone, a painkiller related to oxycodone, was tied to 270 deaths statewide.
The medical examiner's report was issued the same day that an FDA advisory committee recommended either banning or putting a black-box warning on medicines that contain oxycodone or hydrocodone, but also have high levels of acetaminophen, which has been linked to liver damage.
Dr. Rafael Miguel, a specialist in pain management in Tampa, said he welcomes a stronger warning on boxes on those medications, but he worries if the drugs with acetaminophen are eliminated as options, more patients will seek higher-powered narcotic drugs.
"Your mom and mine will hear the news and say they want nothing to do with acetaminophens," he said.
The medical examiner's commission concluded that prescription drugs were tied to more drug overdoses than illicit substances like cocaine or heroin.
Benzodiazepines, sedatives like Xanax and Valium, were the second-biggest class of drugs causing death in Florida, with 929 cases last year.
Dr. Jon R. Thogmartin, the chief medical examiner for Pasco and Pinellas counties, said deaths caused by heroin have dropped significantly while deaths from oxycodone and other pain pills have surged.
"That's because people are replacing it with FDA-approved prescription opiates like oxycodone that do the same thing. Why buy horrible stuff you have to inject when you can just take a pill?"
Concern about the abuse of prescription drugs led to the recent passage of a prescription monitoring bill that is expected to help curtail doctor-shopping.
Kris Hundley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996.