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The Opioid Epidemic - "An American Disease"

"Beginning in the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies selling high-dose opioids seized upon a notion, based on flimsy scientific evidence, that regardless of the length of treatment, patients would not become addicted to opioids...How did we get this so wrong?"

~Dr. David A. Kessler, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, "The Opioid Epidemic We Failed to Foresee", the New York Times (May 6, 2016)


Because he ran the FDA from 1990 to 1997, Dr. David Kessler can speak with authority and insight when it comes to certain problems existent in America today. And when it comes to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled an "epidemic" - the explosion of opioid over-prescribing and the resultant overdose deaths - Dr. Kessler doesn't hold back.

Opioid Addicttion is an American Disease

Speaking to CBS News recently, Dr. Kessler called the opioid situation in the United States "one of the great mistakes of modern medicine", and said there is plenty of blame to go around.

"FDA has responsibility, the pharmaceutical companies have responsibility, physicians have responsibility. We didn't see these drugs for what they truly are...The inappropriate promotion of drugs contributed significantly to this epidemic. Because drug companies took a small piece, a sliver of science and widely promoted it as not being addictive. That was false."

Opioid Abuse Statistics

The Statistics about Opioid (Over)Use in America Paint a Disturbing Picture

According to numbers released by the CDC, the number of drug overdose deaths is rising at an alarming rate. Take a look at the most recent statistics:

  • Last year, more than 47,000 Americans perished due to overdoses- the highest number ever.
  • The vast majority of these deaths were related in some way to opioids.
  • 1999-2014, US opioid sales quadrupled.
  • Not coincidentally, so did the number of opioid-related fatal overdoses.
  • In one year, 2012-2013, the total opioid death rate jumped by 14%, including:
  • Prescription opioid pain medications - by 9%
  • Heroin - by 26%
  • Synthetic opioids - a staggering 80%
  • In 2014, opioids were involved in 60% of ALL overdoses.
  • There has been an unbroken 15-year increase in fatal prescription painkiller overdoses.
  • In 2014, 28,647 people died because of opioid overdoses- an all-time record.
What Is Being Done to End the Opioid Epidemic

What Is Being Done to End the Opioid Epidemic in the United States?

Dr. Kessler believes that it is going to take a concerted effort by everyone involved, saying, "Everybody has to do better. The CDC guidelines need to be implemented. Pharmaceutical companies need not over-promote. Doctors need to prescribe more wisely in a more limited way. But it's going to take a societal shift, it's bigger than any one of those steps, in order to change this epidemic."

The guidelines that he alludes to were just released by this past March. For the first time ever, the CDC is recommending that physicians:

  • Refrain from prescribing opioids for long-term, chronic pain
  • Explore other avenues of pain management methods with their patients - weight loss, exercise, physical therapy, medication, and over-the-counter remedies
  • Prescribe opioids in the smallest possible dosages and for the shortest possible duration, with regular and frequent revaluations

The idea is NOT to turn a blind eye to a patient suffering chronic pain. Rather, the goal is to focus on other effective methods that do not carry the same risks of dependency, misuse, addiction, and overdose.

Just within the past few years, many communities across the country have implemented patient databases that physicians and pharmacists can access as a way of preventing patients from "doctor-shopping" in order to obtain multiple prescriptions.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama included in his 2017 budget request an extra $1.1 BILLION earmarked for drug treatment for individuals addicted to opioids. Speaking at the 2016 Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit, the President remarked, "...when you look at the staggering statistics in terms of lives lost, productivity impacted, costs to communities, but most importantly, cost to families from this epidemic of opioids abuse, it has to be something that is right up there at the top of our radar screen."

Opioid Epidemic Education

Ultimately, there is a degree of responsibility that must also fall upon patients and their families. This is the "societal shift" that Dr. Kessler referred to. It is in the best interest of anyone seeking pain relief to educate themselves about the real risks of prescription opioid painkillers. When a doctor - in good faith - writes a prescription for opioid medication, the well-informed patient needs to proactively ask about alternatives.

When opioids are prescribed, both the patient and their loved ones need to be acutely aware of the effects of the medication and be especially watchful for any signs of drug diversion.

Here's the bottom line -the general consensus in the medical community now is that opioid medications are not always appropriate for every patient in pain. More importantly, if you or someone you care about is misusing a prescription opioid painkiller, it is absolutely imperative that the assistance of a trained addiction specialist is sought as soon as possible.

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The Opioid Epidemic in America

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