MIAMI — New data shows that prescription drug deaths in Florida increased nearly 9 percent last year compared with 2009 despite aggressive efforts by law enforcement to educate people about the dangers and to crack down on illegal distribution.
Figures show the problem is particularly bad in the Tampa Bay area. Pinellas and Pasco counties lead Florida in fatal overdoses attributed to each of the six drugs that cause the most deaths statewide.
Gov. Rick Scott said Monday at the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner's Office that he believes stronger legislation and regulation, along with more money for police, is helping in 2011. Data isn't available for the first half of this year, but Scott said he hopes the numbers will start to decline.
He signed a new law in June that penalizes doctors who overprescribe painkillers, tightens rules for operating pharmacies and modifies a prescription-drug monitoring database by prohibiting pharmaceutical companies from making financial contributions to support it. In February, Scott had called for the Legislature to repeal the 2009 law mandating the database, but it was eventually given the green light in April.
Florida has been a leading source for the illicit purchase of prescription drugs, with addicts and dealers from across the Southeast flocking to pain clinics.
Data released Monday shows there were 2,710 deaths in Florida last year caused by prescription drugs, compared with 2,488 in 2009. Oxycodone was the biggest killer, causing 1,516 deaths, compared with 1,185 in 2009. Once again, prescription drugs continued to outpace illegal drugs as a cause of death last year. In fact, there were nearly three times as many deaths in Florida last year attributed to oxycodone as were attributed to cocaine.
The Medical Examiner's District covering Pinellas and Pasco counties led the state in all six of the leading prescription drug killers: oxycodone, alprazolam (Xanax), methadone, hydrocodone (Vicodin) and diazepam (Valium).
The district covering Hillsborough County also was near the top in most drug categories.
Scott said the effort to stem the scourge is a personal one for him because he has a brother who has abused drugs for many years.
"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.''
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 252,410 pharmaceutical pills and nearly $1.7 million in cash. The governor also said sales of oxycodone are down 17 percent for the first five months of 2011.
"With a drop that dramatic, I think it's safe to say our multifaceted 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.''
Detailing the state's effort, Scott said the purchase of oxycodone by Florida's pharmacies and practitioners dropped from January to May, compared with the same time period in 2010, according to Drug Enforcement Administration data.
In the first five months of last year, pharmacies purchased 236 million doses of oxycodone and practitioners purchased 35 million doses. For the same period in 2011, oxycodone purchases by pharmacies dropped to 225 million. The amount purchased by practitioners fell to 925,000 doses.
Medical license suspensions are up. Since March 30, the Department of Health has issued 160 emergency suspension orders of medical licenses, 30 percent more than last year. Almost half of the 160 licenses were suspended for inappropriate prescribing of controlled substances. The department is also working to reduce the typical period of time between arrest and license suspension from 134 days to 19 days.
"We have revamped our process for issuing emergency suspension orders to take the license of those that in the past have been arrested by the law enforcement entities and then have moved down the street and continued to practice medicine and hurt the citizens of this state,'' Farmer said.
Also Monday, officials were to preside over a court-ordered destruction of more than 148,000 prescription pills that were quarantined in South Florida after the declaration of a public health emergency.
Hundreds of bottles of confiscated pills filled bags and boxes and sat on a table near the podium where Scott and Bailey spoke.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi described the year-over-year increase in prescription drug deaths as "crushing." But, she said in a statement, "With our continued efforts I am confident that these reports will reflect positive changes in the future."
Information from the Associated Press, Miami Herald and Times files was used in this report.