SALT LAKE CITY — An expensive marketing campaign and increased outreach efforts have helped dramatically decrease the number of Utahns who die from prescription overdoses every year.

"It is one of our winnable health battles," Teresa Garrett, director of Utah Department of Health Disease Control and Prevention Division, told the Legislature's Health and Human Services Interim Committee on Wednesday.

But, even with the recent decline, Garrett said more people are dying from drug overdoses than from automobile accidents in the state.

Medical examiners first noticed the growing trend in 2000. In 2007, when overdose deaths peaked at 326, a law was enacted requiring physicians to get additional education on prescribing pain medications, among other things, which played a part in decreasing prescription overdoses in Utah.

Other efforts, including an aggressive $700,000 media campaign and the designation of multiple disposal locations for excess medication, have "certainly increased awareness of this issue in the public," and is helping to save dozens of lives, Garrett said.

The state is halfway through a 10-year study of the issue, after being named as 4th in the nation for its higher-than-average prevalence of prescription drug abuse.

Officials have been changing policies and implementing helpful strategies along the way, including making it easier for those addicted to prescription pain medication to get help.

"Law enforcement is used to dealing with illicit drugs, but this is a different animal," said Marjean Searcy, who works with the Utah Pharmaceutical Drug Crime Project, which brings local police, federal agents and health care workers together to change in the ways drugs are exchanged throughout the state. "We have to be careful not to vilify these drugs because there are people who need to get access to these drugs."

Overdose victims in Utah span the ages between 25 to 54 and just as many men are affected as women in the state. Nearly 90 percent of them suffer from chronic pain, which Garrett said is difficult to treat.

Utah's Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Todd Grey said he's noticed that the recession has signaled an increase in pain medication use among local patients, which is concerning.

"Prescription drug abuse is an unintended consequence of an intent to treat the pain," he said. Officials are hard-pressed to curtail the problem because many people do benefit from and rely on prescription pain medications in their daily lives.

According to a 2008 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20.8 percent of adults in Utah had been prescribed narcotic pain medication and 72 percent reported to have had drugs leftover. More than 3 percent used it more frequently than was directed and nearly 2 percent of Utah adults, roughly 50,000 people, used an opioid not prescribed to them that year.

Garrett said that the majority of those who use or abuse prescription pain medication are unemployed (63 percent) and they are also frequently socially isolated — lived alone, were unmarried, did not attend church or didn't work. Most are also uninsured, according to CDC data.

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While more needs to be done, the collaboration of efforts to isolate factors contributing to the drug overdose problem in Utah has made a difference, Garrett said.

"There has been an amazing decline in the number of people dying of prescription overdose," she said, adding that physicians and insurance companies are starting to pay attention and are also helping the cause.

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards