PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — More than 180 Rhode Islanders died from unintentional drug overdoses last year — more than four times the number of people who were the victims of homicide in the state, public health officials said Wednesday.
Prescription drugs were involved in 119 of them, according to state Director of Health Michael Fine, who said the numbers show the need to boost programs to prevent and treat drug abuse. Fine said he is reminded of the problem every Monday when he reviews reports of fatal overdoses from the past weekend.
"Every Monday morning I get my heart broken," Fine said. "Every Monday morning the reports are the same: two, three, four people who died unnecessarily."
The state's overdose death rate, including suicides, is the highest in New England, according to a study by the Trust For America's Health nonprofit, released earlier this week that looked at data from the Centers for Disease Control. It was a problem highlighted earlier this year when 14 people died after using acetyl fentanyl, a new and highly dangerous illegal opiate that resembles heroin.
The total of 182 fatal accidental overdoses last year represents a significant increase from 2009, when 137 people died.
The state is seeing some progress in the fight against overdoses, however. Rhode Island now has the 13th highest overdose death rate in the nation, down from seventh a few years ago, Fine said.
Last month, the state received an $11 million, five-year federal grant to target substance abuse by teens and young adults.
Fine, State Police Col. Steven O'Donnell and other public health officials released the data at a press conference Wednesday intended to publicize the problem of overdose deaths and encourage those struggling with addiction to get help.
For too long, addicts and their loved ones have been too ashamed to seek help for substance abuse, Fine said. He said the problem must be seen as a disease and a public health crisis.
Several explanations were suggested for Rhode Island's higher-than-average rate of overdose deaths, including the state's beleaguered economy, the former prominence of organized crime, the state's location along Interstate 95 between New York and Boston, and even its maritime setting, which allows for easier smuggling.
On Tuesday, a state police officer stopped a vehicle traveling from New York and found 700 oxycodone pills inside, according to O'Donnell. He noted that 25 homicides in Rhode Island were recorded last year — a total that is dwarfed by the number of fatal overdoses.
"It's kind of a dirty little secret," O'Donnell said. "If we had 200 people killed in the streets of this state, people would be horrified."