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Troubled British singer Amy Winehouse was found dead in her London apartment earlier today, sparking speculation about how she died. Police have not determined a cause of death, and much remains unknown about the circumstances of her demise. Winehouse could have died from any number of things, from suicide to homicide to an unknown medical condition.
But the popular assumption is, of course, that she likely died from a drug overdose (the unspoken addendum is that no one should be surprised that Winehouse is dead at 27 given her past). As an ABC News story noted,
The troubled singer had been in and out of rehab multiple times, even singing songs about how she would not go. In June 2008, she was rushed to a hospital after she fainted at home. Shortly afterwards, her father said in an interview that she was suffering from emphysema and had been warned by doctors that she would die if she continued smoking crack cocaine and cigarettes.
While it’s tempting to assume that Winehouse died of a drug overdose, the fact is that overdoses are actually relatively rare. Despite alarmist (and simplistic) anti-drug information suggesting that hard drug use inevitably leads to death, the vast majority of drug addicts do not die from overdosing. Far more people die of the flu or blood poisoning than drug overdoses, though as of 2005 overdoses were the second leading cause of accidental deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The vast majority of drug use kills users slowly over time, not suddenly in a snap overdose. Long-time drug users like Winehouse are often mentally and physically impaired; no one can look at a longtime methamphetamine or heroin addict and think that they escaped unscathed. Think of all the high-profile musicians who have used and abused drugs for decades, including Ozzy Osbourne, Keith Richards, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, and many other hard-rocking, hard-living, mostly-functioning entertainers.
Drug use is dangerous not only because of the long-term effects of drugs on the users themselves (such as cardiac arrest, mental illness, and cirrhosis of the liver) but also the accompanying circumstances of drug culture, including drug deals that may involve guns and violence.
Then there are secondary medical problems such as hepatitis and AIDS infection from shared dirty needles, and deaths that are not caused by the drugs themselves, but instead the user's behavior (such as driving a vehicle under the influence of drugs).
It's difficult to get an accurate estimate of drug overdoses because it's not always clear whether the overdose was accidental or intentional. One person who overdoses on drugs may have chosen it as a cleaner method of suicide than a gunshot, while another person may have simply gotten stronger (or purer) drugs than he or she was expecting.
Given Winehouse's long, documented history of drug abuse it's likely that her death was in fact related to drugs in some way. The silver lining in this case is that, if the singer did indeed die of a drug overdose as is widely speculated, her death is the exception rather than the rule.