We are in the middle of our worst opioid epidemic ever. This current epidemic had its start in the 1990’s when big pharma companies really pushed the sale and prescriptions of their drugs. Their aggressive marketing techniques (that included TV commercials and incentives for doctors to prescribe) are at the root of it. This is according to a recent study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The number of prescriptions has increased from 76 million in 1991 to over 200 million in 2013. America has become the biggest consumer of opioids worldwide. This correlates to the increase in opioid-related deaths. Since 1999, it has nearly quadrupled. In 2014 there were over 28,000 deaths from opioid overdoses, over half of which were prescription opioids.
Women at Increased Risk
While men still are more likely to become addicted, women have become more at risk for opioid addiction than ever. And it crosses all socio-economic levels. Women’s overdosing from prescription opioids has increased 400%, while men only 237% from 1999 to 2010. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that women are more likely to have chronic pain and are more likely to get higher dosages prescribed to them than men as well as having the opioids prescribed for longer periods of time. This makes them more susceptible to addiction and overdose. Opioid overdose deaths accounted for nearly 7000 women in 2010. That’s 18 women a day dying from prescription painkillers.
When the highly-addictive prescription opioids are no longer available, they will more likely turn to heroin, which is far cheaper and more readily available, while giving the same type of pain relief. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), four in five new heroin users started out misusing prescription opioids. And heroin use is already dangerous because of the lack of control over the purity of the product. It could be contaminated with any number of substances and other drugs, including Fentanyl, another highly addictive and potent drug.
Regions with Biggest Increase
The Midwest and the East Coast have seen the biggest increase in opioid overdoses, with West Virginia having the highest rate of overdose deaths at 35 per 100,000. (The national average is 15 deaths per 100,000.) Opioids are the main culprit according to the CDC. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, has had a sharp increase in overdoses and deaths, as it has become a more and more illegally manufactured drug. This drug is up to 100 times more potent than morphine.
Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma and Abbott Laboratories, its marketing partner, aggressively promoted the painkiller OxyContin, whose active ingredient oxycodone which is highly addictive. They were sued by the state of Kentucky for deaths that had occurred from overdoses of this drug. Documents came to light that helped explain why the overdose deaths had quadrupled between 1999 and 2013. Nearly 16,000 Americans overdosed on oxycodone in 2013. In West Virginia, other court documents came to light that Purdue Pharma and Abbott Laboratories had played a big role in this crisis by, among other things, pursuing a
In West Virginia, other court documents came to light that Purdue Pharma and Abbott Laboratories had played a big role in this crisis by, among other things, pursuing a system-wide effort to block state medical agencies from restricting OxyContin prescriptions to just those who really need it. More documents stated that they had actively misled prescribers as to the strength and safety of the painkiller. This all came from court documents in a case in which the state of West Virginia had sued the two companies in 2004. The case was settled and neither company admitted any wrongdoing.
On the one hand these big pharma companies are stating they are working with state authorities to curb OxyContin misuse and overdoses, yet on the other hand, they are working to make the prescription parameters less stringent. This is very disturbing and puts us all at risk.
What’s Being Done About the Opioid Epidemic in America
Fortunately, the government and many states are working to combat opioid overdose and deaths, with lawmakers, police and doctors participating. In September of 2016, President Barack Obama held the first “Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week”, calling for increased funding from Congress to tackle addiction and proposing that medical professionals seek training on responsible prescription practices. The National Institute on Drug Abuse stated that when opioids are taken as prescribed and the physicians monitor their patients more thoroughly, opioid addiction and abuse is less likely to happen.
Most states now have a Good Samaritan law that lets drug users call 911 without getting arrested themselves when their friend overdoses. Unfortunately, not everyone who needs to, knows about the law, and even some police are not sure whom it protects. Baltimore took on another way to combat overdoses, this time from Fentanyl. The city’s health commissioner, Leana Wen, prescribed the antidote naloxone, which can halt an overdose, to all residents. With a quick bit of training and the antidote, anyone can keep someone from dying from an overdose of that potent drug. Among rehab aids , there is FDA approved Probuphine, an implant that releases buprenorphine into the body, is now able to be used for heroin addicts as this drug attaches to the same receptors in the brain as heroin. It keeps the recovering addict from having withdrawal symptoms for at least six months, allowing them to get their life back together.
It’s not all bad news out there. We just need to be more aware. Education is a critical component of understanding opioid drug use, abuse, prevention and recovery.