It is increasingly apparent that the “War on Drugs” is being fought on the wrong front. While the horrors of illicit drugs are well-known to the general public, widespread ignorance about the effects of prescription and over-the-counter medications is causing what the University of Washington calls, “the largest manmade epidemic in the country.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), drug overdoses are responsible for more deaths than car accidents and guns combined. Women are four times as likely to die from an overdose of prescription painkillers as by overdosing on heroin or cocaine, and across the United States, a staggering 55,000 to 80,000 people are rushed to emergency rooms every year after ingesting acetaminophen, an ingredient commonly found in painkillers. Of these, around 500 will die and, alarmingly, about half of these fatal overdoses are deliberate.
One of the most popular of these over-the-counter drugs is Tylenol, manufactured by Johnson & Johnson through its subsidiary, McNeill Consumer Healthcare. 100 million people take Tylenol in various doses each year. J & J and McNeill are currently facing 85 personal injury lawsuits which claim the companies failed to warn consumers that Tylenol causes liver failure and death.
As a result of the alarming number of deaths and hospitalizations caused by their product, or perhaps as a result of the lawsuits, the manufacturers of Tylenol have decided to put a bright red warning on the bottle caps, reading “Contains acetaminophen. Always read the label.”
“We’re always looking for ways to better communicate information to patients and consumers,” says Dr. Edwin Kuffner, Vice President of McNeill Consumer Healthcare. How then to explain the frightening ignorance of those who use the drug and others like it?
Although acetaminophen is regarded as a “safe drug” when taken correctly, the fact that it is so readily accessible in bottles of up to 300 pills makes it potentially dangerous, argues Dr. William Lee of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
Most people are able to take about 3,000 milligrams of acetaminophen, but not all. A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reveals that more than 7,000 children are admitted to emergency rooms every year as a result of acetaminophen overdoses, making it the leading cause of drug-related ER visits among youngsters. Furthermore, acetaminophen has been linked to an increased likelihood of asthma, various cancers and liver damage.
Many fatalities are as a consequence of combining a drug like Tylenol with prescription or over-the-counter medications which also contain acetaminophen – drugs like Nyquil, Sudafed and Excedrin. There are currently about 600 products on the market which contain acetaminophen.
Perhaps even more serious is when the drugs are combined with alcohol. Acetaminophen has been the leading cause of sudden liver failure in the United States for more than a decade, and combining a few painkillers with a few drinks can be lethal. In 1994 – almost 20 years ago – Johnson & Johnson added a warning to bottles about the dangers of mixing Tylenol with alcohol, and this was followed in 1998 with a warning not to exceed the recommended dose, and in 2004 with a specific warning about the risks of liver damage.
Presumably, doctors and pharmacists are also warning consumers about the wealth of medical research which has highlighted these risks. Or are they? Sadly, although the multi-billion dollar drug companies issue small print warnings about the dangers of their products, the message which most consumers hear is the one which appears on the commercials. Pharmaceutical companies go out of their way to curry favour with legislators and medical professionals, and it is entirely likely that most people are not thinking about potential hazards when they reach for a pill.
The real “War on Drugs” begins with providing consumers with the right information about a legal product which kills more than 20,000 people every year – that’s one person killed every 19 minutes by prescribed or over-the-counter medication.
Johnson & Johnson has shown initiative in marking Tylenol bottle caps, but consumers will still need to read the label. Then, they will have to make a sensible choice. Around 250 people use painkillers like Tylenol to commit suicide each year, and bright red warnings are unlikely to change that.