LARGO — How bad is the prescription drug problem in Florida and the Tampa Bay area?
Panelists at a town hall meeting Thursday night let numbers tell the story. There was the widely reported figure of 2,488 deaths from prescription drugs in the state in 2009, which is an average of about seven people a day.
But there were other numbers, such as:
• 938 — the number of prescription drug-related deaths in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in that same year, which amounts to about one death every nine hours.
• 175 — the number of arrests that Pinellas County Sheriff's Capt. Robert Alfonso said came from one operation that was responsible for moving 1.2 million pills into the marketplace.
• 3 — the number of babies that Dr. Robert Morelli of All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg has seen just this week who were born with prescription drugs in their system.
Alfonso and Morelli were among a panel that also included representatives from Operation PAR, the Drug Free America Foundation, the group Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education (NOPE) and the Pinellas County School Board. The meeting at the Young-Rainey STAR Center on Bryan Dairy Road in Largo drew about 50 people.
Lana Beck, a spokesperson with the Drug Free America Foundation, said the meeting was held to raise awareness in the community, with the hope that elected officials will "respond appropriately."
On that note, panelists took issue with new Florida Gov. Rick Scott by tossing out another figure: zero, which is the amount of money it would cost state taxpayers to implement a prescription drug monitoring program, which the state Legislature approved in 2009, but which Scott wants to eliminate.
Panelist Sharon Kelley, executive director of the Associates in Emergency Medical Education Inc., said the program has more than $1.1 million from federal grants and private donations to get started.
Alfonso, who heads the Sheriff's Office's narcotics division, said the monitoring program would be one of the most effective tools in the fight against prescription drug abuse.
"Drug abuse and doctor shopping would go down if we had a monitoring program," he said.
Among the attendees was Sally Jamiel of Odessa, who placed a number of display boards in the back of the room that called attention to the problem. Most striking were the photos of 10 children and young adults who she said have either died of prescription drug abuse or were recovering from it.
One of the photos was of her 26-year-old daughter, who became addicted to prescription drugs several years ago and spent time in jail before turning her life around. She now has been drug-free for several years.
"Drug addiction cripples a family," Jamiel said.
Richard Martin can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330.