Nov. 10, 2011 -- There are plenty of lurid tales of people being drugged to be robbed or taken advantage of sexually. Sadly, they're not just stories -- and they may be becoming more common.
There were 14,270 emergency room visits for intentional drug poisoning in the U.S. during 2009, according to new data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Of these emergency room visits, 73% were made by people aged 21 and older, and nearly two-thirds were by women.
Intentional poisoning refers to "attempts to harm someone by deliberately getting them to take a potentially harmful substance without their knowledge. These are people that are being given drugs that they don't know about," says Peter J. Delany, PhD. He is the director of SAMHSA's Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality in Rockville, Md.
Intentional poisonings can occur in many scenarios using many types of illicit drugs, either alone or in combination with alcohol or other substances. A common setup occurs when a known date rape drug is subtly slipped into a cocktail at a bar or nightclub. These intentional poisonings often precede sexual assault or robbery.
The best way to protect yourself from intentional poisoning is to be aware, Delany says. "Pay attention to where your beverage is, don't take alcohol or free drinks from people who you don't know, and if you start to feel odd, seek help right away."
New Data on Intentional Poisonings
The new data help paint a more accurate picture of intentional poisonings in the U.S. and may help raise awareness of the issue.
Among the key findings:
- 6 of 10 intentional poisonings involved alcohol in combination with other drugs.
- 1/3 of intentional poisonings involved illicit drugs such as marijuana, stimulants, and/or ecstasy.
- 21% of intentional poisonings involve prescription drugs such as medication to treat insomnia, anxiety, or pain.
The numbers come from SAMHSA's Drug Abuse Warning Network, which monitors drug-related emergency room visits in the U.S. This is the first year that the group has published data on intentional poisoning. In unpublished data from 2008, however, there were 7,609 emergency room visits for intentional poisonings, Delaney says.
The 2009 data represents a 93% increase over 2008. "This may be a result of better reporting or paying closer attention to what is going on, or it may also be that there are more intentional poisonings as consequences as mixing more drugs with different things," he tells WebMD.
How to Stay Safe
Rick Spiller, PhD, says the new data give us a better handle on the scope of the problem. He is the managing director of the Kentucky Regional Poison Center in Louisville.
Intentional poisoning doesn't just happen in bars, Spiller says. "It can occur in any public situation like a party or an open environment like the beach."
The best way to stay safe is to develop a buddy system. "People don't run up and inject you, they usually give it in a drink," he says. Tell your buddy if you start to feel strange, and let him or her get you out of the situation ASAP.
Some people may be reluctant to seek help because they were drinking alcohol and may have been taking illicit drugs when the intentional poisoning occurred.
When in doubt, go to the emergency room or call 911, Spiller says. "This is critical if there is prosecution."
As the medical director of the Florida Poison Information Center at the University of Miami, Jeffrey N. Bernstein, MD, practices very close to South Beach, which is home to many of Miami's swankiest clubs, lounges, and bars. He has seen his fair share of intentional poisonings.
"They are very common in nightclubs but can occur anywhere," he says. "These substances are a lot easier to get ahold of or conceal than a gun."
The new numbers are likely just the tip of the iceberg as many intentional poisonings go unreported or even unrecognized. "Some people may not go to the emergency room, or maybe they didn't even realize that they had been intentionally poisoned," Bernstein tells WebMD.