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Pill Bottles and Prescription Drug Poisonings

posted on Mon, Aug 17 2015 3:45 pm by Jon S. Vernick

I’ve been working in the field of injury prevention for about 25 years. For nearly all of that time, the leading causes of death by injury in the U.S. were motor vehicle crashes and firearm-related fatalities, and predictions were made as to which of these two would, in the long run, be the bigger injury problem. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, deaths by poisoning surpassed both guns and cars to become the leading source of injury-related death. Of course, it wasn’t really out of nowhere – but a problem that had grown over many years. 

When many of us imagine a “poisoning” death, we think of a young child finding a household-cleanser under the kitchen sink. And while this type of poisoning is still an issue, until recently, the fastest growing type of poisoning death in the U.S. came from overdoses of prescription drugs. Today, heroin-related deaths are spiking, but prescription drug overdoses remain an enormous problem. As of 2013, there were more than 48,000 poisoning deaths in the U.S. Of these, more than 22,000 were from prescription drugs, including about 16,000 from opioid painkillers like oxycodone.

In 1970, the Poison Prevention Packaging Act was enacted by Congress. The Act permitted the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to require child-resistant packaging for certain household products, including oral prescription drugs. That regulation – which took effect in 1974 – has saved the lives of hundreds of young children.

But older children and adults are obviously still able to defeat child-resistant packaging and consume opioids or other prescription drugs not prescribed for them.

Recently, students at the Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering, in conjunction with faculty of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, developed a new device intended to prevent unauthorized access to prescription drugs. The tamper-resistant pill dispenser is equipped with a fingerprint reading device, similar to those on some popular smart phones, to ensure that only the person for whom the drugs were prescribed could operate it. This video shows the device in operation.

The device is just a prototype, and while innovative, would not prevent all prescription drug poisoning deaths. (Many who abuse prescription drugs are the ones for whom they were prescribed). But devices like this can help us to remember the enormously important role that modifying products (in this case the pill bottle) can have in preventing injuries. And also of the role of legislation and regulation in ultimately mandating such product changes. 

This blog post was developed by Jon S. Vernick, J.D., M.P.H., Professor and Co-Director of Johns Hopkins Center for Law and the Public’s Health, and Deputy Director of Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is also affiliated with the Network for Public Health Law’s Eastern Region – a partnership between the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this post does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.

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