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LATEST CASUALTY: Actress Brittany Murphy was found dead last week of an apparent heart attack at the age of 32

LATEST CASUALTY: Actress Brittany Murphy was found dead last week of an apparent heart attack at the age of 32

LATEST CASUALTY: Actress Brittany Murphy was found dead last week of an apparent heart attack at the age of 32

'OVERDOSE deaths from painkillers skyrocket'. 'More die from prescription drugs than car crashes'. 'Prescription drug abuse ravages our youth'. 'Overdose death rate from legal drugs surges'.

The above are examples of recent headlines on the increasing problem that is legal drug abuse. The latest high-profile death story?

'Drug overdose like Heath Ledger's likely killed Brittany Murphy, says toxicology expert'.

Actress Brittany Murphy, star of 8 Mile (being shown on RTE Two tonight at 1.10am), Girl Interrupted and Clueless, is the most recent young talent to succumb to the lure of legal drugs. Earlier this year, actor Heath Ledger was found dead in his room with a startling array of prescription drugs in evidence. Brittany's case seems to be little different.

Leaks from the investigators' notes state that Brittany's bedroom contained drugs such as: Klonopin (anxiety medication), Carbamazapine (bipolar or diabetic med), Methyprednisolone (an anti-inflammatory), Blaxin (an antibiotic), fluoexetine (anti-depressant) Topomax (an anti-seizure medicine also used for chronic migraine) and Propanolol (a drug used to prevent heart attacks). According to doctors, even a modest amount of these drugs mixed together could have caused the cardiac arrest which killed the actress.

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We still seem to be under the impression that a sudden celebrity death involving 'drugs' must mean the person concerned died out of their heads on heroin or cocaine, but it's rarely that extreme.

Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole Smith, Michael Jackson: all died from overdoses of prescribed drugs. Both Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix may have survived if they'd just refused that last drink. And now we have pretty young talented Brittany Murphy joining the ranks of the 'legally' dead.

Murphy had always strenuously denied being on drugs, despite showing signs of increasing weight loss and being fired from her last film: supposedly for 'creative differences' but more likely because she couldn't get it together enough to remember her lines, let alone act them.

Perhaps Murphy too was under the common illusion that legal drugs don't count. We're constantly hearing about governments getting tough on 'drugs' but what they usually mean by that is heroin, cocaine or ecstasy -- illegal drugs which don't contribute to the tax take.

'Drugs Kill', 'Just Say No' go the slogans, usually accompanied by pictures of illegal drug paraphernalia such as spoons or rolled up banknotes.

But legal drugs cause far more accidental deaths. And kids today don't have to leave home to get a cocktail of drugs which will send them off their heads. 'Pharm parties' are increasingly popular with teenagers. The kids just grab a handful of whatever mum and dad keep in the medicine chest and swop them around, washed down by some cough medicine, perfect for getting off your head; that they have no idea what the tablets are for only adds to the fun.

A friend who works in the area of abuse spoke about the increase in alcohol use among Irish women. "Some of them are moving onto OTC (over the counter) drugs now," she said. "It used to be you'd call into someone's house and they would offer you a cup of tea. That progressed onto a glass of wine and now some women are offering drugs like Solpadeine to their girlfriends in the same way they'd ask if you wanted a cup of coffee."

"Honestly," she says. "It's the latest relaxant for middle aged women, that or Nurofen Plus, which is perhaps why the pharmacies are being pressurised to monitor their use."

Reports say that from next year, pharmacists will not be able to display codeine-containing products in their stores; they will also have to ensure that customers know how to use these drugs properly. A few weeks ago, while purchasing a painkiller (as recommended by my doctor) I did notice that the pharmacist made me sign a form saying that I knew the drugs contained codeine.

At least I think that's what it said. Like most hassled shoppers with chronic backpain, I just nodded, signed the paper and took the packet. But I had never realised how potent and dangerous drugs such as these can be. And I certainly didn't know that codeine was an opiate which shared characteristics with heroin, that a significant proportion of the drug is converted to morphine in the brain and that coming off it 'cold turkey' is very dangerous.

Thankfully, unless my pain is severe, I can take painkillers or leave them, but I do know many people who have become 'addicted' (although none of us would actually say that word) to these drugs -- particularly as some doctors tell them to continue taking them for certain ailments, whether they have pain or not.

The comedian and film producer, Mel Smith, spent seven years addicted to painkillers. "It's frightening how easily I became hooked on a drug sold over the counter," he has said. "I swallowed the pills like Smarties. Swallowing 50 in one day was tantamount to committing suicide. I'm lucky to be alive."

We've all heard about 'addictive personalities', people who just switch from one abuse to another depending on circumstance -- but, increasingly, people who would never have considered themselves 'addicts' falling hostage to OTC and prescription drugs without realising the damage they are doing.

What usually happens is that someone experiences discomfort, pain or anxiety and either buys or is prescribed medicines to deal with it. But if they aren't aware of the power of these drugs, they may be tempted to continue taking them indefinitely. Then of course, they don't work so well after prolonged use so the dose has to be increased or a mix of drugs added and before you know it, you're at risk of bleeding stomach, liver problems or gallstones. Continue adding to your daily cocktail of 'legal' drugs and you may end up with a Brittany scenario: dead on the bathroom floor at 32.

Of course, people have always taken whatever drugs are the order of the day. These have ranged from gin, laudanum, opium and cocaine to Valium, Vicodin, Nurofen and Solpadine. Government guidelines will not prevent the determined from pharmacy, doctor or internet shopping. But anything that increases awareness of the dangers of drugs that can be bought easily in a pharmacy or prescribed by a doctor can only be a good thing.

Using over-the-counter or prescription drugs doesn't have the grungy romance of heroin chic or the high-living glamour of cocaine, which is why we don't hear so much about them. But they account for three times as many accidental deaths as illicit drugs do. Time to take a look in your medicine cabinet?

Sunday Independent