Gupta: Let's end the prescription drug death epidemic

Story highlights

  • A person dies every 19 minutes, on average, from an accidental prescription drug overdose
  • Congressional testimony reveals 80% of world's pain pills are consumed in the United States
  • Alcohol and pain or sleeping pills can be a deadly combination

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital and CNN's chief medical correspondent, is the author of the novel "Monday Mornings." Don't miss his "Deadly Dose" documentary at 8 p.m. ET Sunday.

(CNN)It's the biggest man-made epidemic in the United States. That's how a doctor in Washington state described it to me as we sat outside the state Capitol in Olympia.

He was talking about accidental death from prescription drug overdoses. The doctor, Gary Franklin, medical director for Washington state's Department of Labor and Industries, recounted terrifying case after case and told me it was the saddest thing he had ever seen.
I remember him telling me about a teenager dying because he had taken too much narcotic medication after a dental procedure.
    The most common scenario, he said, involves a man in his 40s or 50s who visits a doctor with a backache and walks out with a pain pill prescription. About three years later, typically, the man dies in his sleep from taking too many pills, or mixing them with alcohol.
    They don't intend to die, but more than 20,000 times a year -- every 19 minutes, on average -- that is exactly what happens. Accidental overdoses are now a leading cause of accidental deaths in the United States, surpassing car crashes.
    As a neurosurgeon working in a busy level 1 trauma hospital, I had an idea that the problem was growing -- but the numbers still boggle the mind.
    Distribution of morphine, the main ingredient in popular painkillers, increased 600% from 1997-2007, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In the United States, we now prescribe enough pain pills to give every man, woman and child one every four hours, around the clock, for three weeks.
    We often pay close attention if a celebrity dies of an overdose, but truth is,