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Special Report: The Opioid Epidemic

What Must Change to Reduce America’s Dependence

Deaths from addiction to prescription opioids increase every year. Experts say consumers, doctors, insurance companies, government and the pharmaceutical industry must work together to decrease addiction rates. However, that’s a tall order in a system that values profits more than it does public health.

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Lisa Johns’ son, Christopher, was an honor student. He was friendly, was involved in sports and always had a zest to learn. By the time that he was 6 years old, he attended kindergarten in the morning and second grade in the afternoon.

However, Christopher also had a tendency toward depression, which became apparent after a family member died when Christopher was age 9.

Even so, “he was very loving and kind and funny,” Johns says. “He’d do anything for anyone, especially [the] elderly and children.”

When Christopher was age 16, his doctor prescribed him the opioid pain medication OxyContin after Christopher had appendicitis surgery. Seventeen years later, Christopher died from a heroin overdose.  

The story of how Christopher went from being an honor student to being an opioid addict is one that’s all too familiar to many families and friends of those who similarly are addicted in the United States. Experts say the United States has an opioid-addiction epidemic.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 15,000 people died in 2015 from an overdose that involved prescription opioids. When you add the deaths that are related to illicit opioids, which are opioids that are used for nonmedical purposes, 33,091 died from an opioid overdose in 2015.

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Between 2001 and 2011, which is the period for which the most recent data are available, a five-fold increase took place in the number of treatment admissions for prescription-painkiller addictions (to 180,708 from 35,648), and overdose rates quadrupled, CDC says. By 2013, the United States was the largest global consumer of prescription opioids, which include codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone (Vicodin), morphine and oxycodone (OxyContin and Percocet), according to National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). It still is, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH). U.S. consumers accounted for nearly 100 percent of the worldwide consumption of hydrocodone in 2013 and 81 percent of the worldwide consumption of oxycodone that year, NIDA says.

In July 2016, President Barack Obama signed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act into law. The act allots $181 million for programs that address the opioid-addiction epidemic. Furthermore, in October 2016, Drug Enforcement Administration announced that new quotas for 2017 would cut prescription-painkiller production by 25 percent to decrease the number of opioid-prescription-related deaths. Experts say it’s too early to determine whether the law and the quota will have a significant effect.

In April 2017, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced a bill that seeks to combat addiction by limiting an initial opioid prescription for acute pain to 7 days. (Acute pain is pain that lasts less than 3 months.) At press time, no one could tell us when the bill will be discussed in a committee. The bill is modeled after laws that exist in Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont. New Jersey limits initial opioid prescriptions to 5 days, which is the strictest such state law.

Twenty-three experts tell us that the opioid-addiction epidemic is a complex problem that has multiple contributing factors. Health-care providers, insurance companies, market forces, the pharmaceutical industry, and local, state and federal governments play a part. Consumers also should understand the risks of taking opioids before they start any treatment plan that includes such medications. To get a handle on addiction and overdoses, it will take a collective effort, and those who profit from the epidemic will have to change. However, our investigation provided little evidence that those who profit from the opioid-addiction epidemic have any interest to prioritize consumers’ well-being above profits.

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