Putting Drug Deaths in Perspective

All of us have at least one thing in common: we are going to die. The manner, time and place of our demise is not always under our control of course, but each of us must personally decide which risks they are willing to endure in life. Some people have risky jobs -- some of them die doing those jobs. Some people are "daredevils" and pursue risk for pleasure -- some of them also die from such pursuits. Every one of us has different tolerance of personal risk, but also has the right to engage the risks to their own life as they see fit. If we are going to punish people for the "risks" involved in using drugs, it might be useful to put those risks in perspective. Perhaps we can then recognize how silly it is to punish people for doing things to themselves, and we can learn to leave each other alone.

The causes of death listed below were selected purposely to provide an interesting cross-section of deaths due to various causes and show how such deaths compare to those attributed to the use of intoxicants. Some are self-inflicted (like suicides and drug overdoses), some are accidents (fires, power tools, diving), yet others are caused by animals and insects. The largest number of deaths listed below are those which are alcohol induced. If other drugs are "illegal" because of their supposed dangers, then how do we explain the fact that alcohol is not?

The grand total of all the deaths listed below adds up to 1,463,327, and represents only 3.4 percent of the 42,868,083 deaths which occured from 1979-1998. Surely we have better things to spend money on than trying to punish people who do things to themselves.

The codes below can be used with the Centers for Disease Control Wonder System to pose mortality queries of your own, or to verify what is contained on this site.

Selected Causes of Death (1979-1998 cumulative)
Deaths ICD-9 Code(s) Cause of Death Details Notes
6 780.4 Dizziness and giddiness   *
15 787.3 Flatulence, eructation, and gas pain   *
23 See Details Cannabis (Marijuana) *
33 883.2 Accidental fall into storm drain or manhole    
33 920.2 Powered household appliances and implements   *
51 883.1 Accidental fall into well    
65 886.0 Collision in sports (tackles)    
67 906.3 Bite of other animal except arthropod   *
67 See Details Hallucinogens *
97 905.0 Venomous snakes and lizards    
99 905.1 Venomous spiders    
105 920.4 Other hand tools and implements   *
151 920.0 Powered lawn mower    
190 See Details Glue Sniffing *
269 920.1 Other powered hand tools   *
321 817 Boarding or alighting from motor vehicle   *
416 913.2 Suffocation due to lack of air in closed space   *
478 307.9 Other special syptoms and syndromes (masturbation)   *
549 921.8 Other explosions of pressure vessels   *
556 927 Overexertion and strenuous movements   *
920 905.3 Hornets, wasps, and bees    
1,000 883.0 Accident from diving or jumping into swimming pool    
1,360 906.8 Other specified injury caused by animal   *
1,522 820 Nontraffic accident involving motor-driven snow vehicle    
1,698 898.1 Other burning   *
1,986 828 Accident involving animal being ridden    
2,061 See Details Amphetamines  
2,098 826 Pedal cycle accident not involving motor vehicle   *
2,304 925.0 Electrocution by domestic wiring and appliances    
2,334 884.1 Fall from cliff    
3,678 See Details Tobacco *
4,125 893 Accident caused by ignition of clothing    
4,786 501 Asbestosis    
4,829 917 Striking against or struck accidentally by objects or persons    
6,681 910.4 Drowning in bathtub   *
7,221 870-876 Misadventures to patients during surgical and medical care    
7,589 830 Accident to watercraft causing submersion    
7,858 868.2 Accidental poisoning by motor vehicle exhaust gas    
8,833 956 Suicide by cutting and piercing instrument    
8,897 954 Suicide by drowning    
9,818 885 Fall on same level from slipping, tripping, or stumbling    
12,084 882 Fall from or out of building or other structure    
14,106 957 Suicide by jumping from high place    
15,063 500 Coal workers' pneumoconiosis    
17,076 916 Struck accidentally by falling object    
18,126 See Details Cocaine  
24,120 See Details Opioids (Morphine, Heroin)  
24,222 880 Fall on or from stairs or steps    
27,404 278.0 Obesity   *
30,150 911 Choking on food    
37,246 912 Choking on things other than food    
38,328 952.0 Suicide by motor vehicle exhaust gas    
44,727 See Details All Illegal Drugs Combined *
63,335 955.0 Suicide by handgun    
74,019 890 Conflagration (fire) in private dwelling    
80,959 953.0 Suicide by hanging    
87,152 910 Accidental drowning and submersion    
121,001 172 Malignant melanoma of skin   *
145,158 507.0 Aspiration pneumonia due to inhalation of food or vomit    
214,575 See Details All Drug-Induced *
378,960 See Details Alcohol Induced *

Source: Centers for Disease Control, Wonder System


Alcohol - Alcohol-induced causes exclude accidents, homicides, and other causes indirectly related to alcohol use. This category also excludes newborn deaths associated with maternal alcohol use. Why is this drug legal? Why are other drugs illegal?

Bite of other animal except arthropod - This code captures deaths due to cats, moray eels, sharks, and rodents other than rats. No, I am not making this up.

Boarding or Alighting From Motor Vehicle - That's right, these people died getting on or off a bus, falling from their stationary vehicle, or getting jammed in a bus door. Deaths from this cause doubled between 1991 and 1995 -- where's the outrage? Once, again, I am not making this up.

Cannabis - Yep, there really are people whose official "underlying cause of death" has been attributed to their use of cannabis. Of course, more people have died from just about anything you can think of and none of these deaths were the result of toxic conditions caused by cannabis -- they are all classed as mental disorders involving cannabis (ICD-9 code 304.3 - Drug Dependence and ICD-9 code 305.2 - Nondependent Abuse).

Dizziness & giddiness - Is it possible that someone laughed themselves to death? Perhaps if they were high on marijuana. But then the death would be recorded as drug-induced, wouldn't it? If not, let this be a warning to you kids -- smoking pot makes people laugh, at times uncontrollably. If you smoke pot, you run the risk of laughing yourself to death.

Drowning in Bathtub - Yes, a large number of these deaths are infants and children left unattended, but 67 percent of them happened to those aged 15 or older.

Drug-Induced - This category includes everything under the sun. Although the US Office of National Drug Control Policy uses drug-induced deaths as a reason to wage war on your fellow citizens, in actuality only 21 percent of these deaths are due to the use of illegal drugs. Drug-induced causes exclude accidents, homicides, and other causes indirectly related to drug use. Also excluded are newborn deaths associated with motherís drug use -- 41 deaths over the 20 years.

Flatulence - It is unclear from CDC reporting as to whether these folks were victimized by their own gas (which is indeed covered by 787.3), or if some other person lauched an unprovoked SBD attack in their vicinity. In most cases of foreign SBD, the proper coding would be 799.0 (asphyxia) or perhaps 869.9 (accidental poisoning by unspecified gases and vapors).

Glue Sniffing - This code is intended to be used for people seeking mental health help with an absinthe addiction or glue sniffing problem. It is possible to asphixiate when using inhalants, but these deaths are coded as being mental health related.

Hallucinogens - The majority of these deaths (81 percent) are attributed to "accidental poisoning."

Illegal Drugs - Although the US drug czar's office likes to tally all "drug-induced" deaths as related to illegal drug use, the reality is that only 21 percent of those deaths were due to the use of illegal drugs. See for yourself.

Malignant Melanoma of Skin - Yes, these are deaths from skin cancer. Let's think about this for a moment, shall we. Skin cancers cause nearly three times as many deaths as all illegal drugs combined. Why don't we have pre-dawn, no knock warrantless searches of random homes to see if they have sunscreen? Why don't we jail those sporting a tan or a sunburn? Shouldn't we charge people with child abuse if their children get sunburned?

Obesity - These are not deaths due to the long term effects of poor diet and lack of exercise; they are deaths due to flat out weighing too much.

Other Burning - This is a sub-category of all fire induced deaths not caused by buildings on fire or burning clothing. Specifically, this sub-category of fire deaths are those attributed to burning by: blowlamp, blowtorch, candle, cigar, cigarette, lamp, lighter, matches, pipe or welding torch.

Other Explosions of Pressure Vessels - These are deaths due to explosions of aerosol cans, automobile tires and pressure cookers. When will we remove these dangerous items from our world?

Other Hand Tools and Implements - Mom always said "don't run with scissors," and this is why. Other dangerous implements in this category include chisels, forks, needles, rakes, screwdrivers and shovels. It's dangerous out there I tell ya!

Other Powered Hand Tools - included in this category are deaths due to any powered hand tool such as drills, saws, hedge clippers and rivet guns. Use the buddy sytem. Also note that these are accidental deaths only. Homicide by cutting or piercing instruments is coded as 966.

Other Specified Injury Caused by Animal - These deaths were not caused during the riding of an animal, but are instead all cases of being: butted by an animal, fallen on by an animal not being ridden, gored by an animal, being implanted with quills from a porcupine, being pecked by a bird, or run over or stepped on by an animal not being ridden. Clearly animals are dangerous and should be illegal.

Other Special Symptoms and Syndromes - This one really takes the cake. This ICD code is intended for coding mental health treatment, although the code is not supposed to be used even for that purpose. To quote the ICD-9 codebook:"The use of this category should be discouraged. Most of the items listed in the inclusion terms are not indicative of psychiatric disorder and are included only because such terms may sometimes still appear as diagnoses." Besides masturbation, this category includes hair plucking, lalling, lisping, nail-biting and thumb-sucking. Obviously, none of those hobbies are likely to result in death, but the total here is more than 20 times those listed as due to marijuana. Think of the children.

Overexertion and Strenuous Movements - No doubt, these were not pot smokers. Don't strain yourself kids.

Pedal Cycle Accident - These are accidents on cycles which do not involve motor vehicles. These deaths were caused by things like breakage of vehicle parts, collisions with non-motorized objects (people, animals, trees), something tangled in the wheels, falling off the bike or overturning it.

Powered Household Appliances - Now you know why they have all those warnings written all over the box and owner's manuals. These are accidents attributed specifically to those which involve cutting or piercing by electric mixers, can openers, fans, electric knives and sewing machines; and should not be confused with deaths due to being electrocuted by these devices. Those deaths would be included in 925.0 (electrocution by domestic wiring and appliances).

Suffocation in Closed Space - Yes, this is the time-honored practice of locking yourself in an old refrigerator and the like. What is really interesting here is that 54 percent of the victims were 15 years old or older.

Tobacco - The number of people "killed" by the accumulated damages of long term tobacco use is much larger of course, but the deaths in this category are those attributed to tobacco dependence. These are likely to be cases where a person developed a serious condition like emphysema which may have improved had they quit smoking, but their addiction made quitting impossible.

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