By now we've all heard of the tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. On the Internet, descriptions abound of the legendary actor sprawled on the apartment floor in his boxers, surrounded by packets of heroin. And not one news outlet from Fox News to CNN has failed to mention the needle stuck in his arm.
I get it. It's a scary, vivid image and it sells articles. But I'm still offended, not just because such lurid imagery is unnecessary and disrespectful to a great man (do we really need the detail about the boxers?) but also because it equates needles and heroin -- things that even most addicted persons don't use -- with overdose. True, some people die with a heroin needle stuck in their arm, and perhaps Mr. Hoffman was one of them. But the vast majority of drug overdoses don't involve syringes or heroin; many involve legal, easily accessible prescription pills that most of us keep in our medicine cabinets.
Many people don't think they have a drug problem because they "only use pills," yet as we stand in denial, over the past decade prescription painkiller use has skyrocketed 300 percent. Currently more than 12 million Americans take pain relievers to get high and nearly 80 percent of recent heroin initiates start by misusing prescriptions. If we want to prevent more deaths, people need to know about the potential dangers of all drugs, not just the ones that look scary. Here are some things we should know: Prescription opiates, such as OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicoden, contribute to more deaths per year than all illegal drugs combined. More than half of opiate overdoses involve mixing them with alcohol or other drugs. Rescue breathing, not CPR, should be the response to an opiate overdose, after calling 911 and administering naloxone, a medication that reverses opiate overdose. Naloxone is available via prescription, and in some states, from community programs who distribute it to people at risk for overdose, including those who use prescription opiates for pain management. Across the country, some law enforcement departments are starting to carry naloxone so they can respond if they arrive at the scene of an overdose before the paramedics. Seventeen states and Washington, D.C., have recently passed laws expanding access to naloxone and fourteen states and D.C. have passed 911 Good Samaritan laws that protect people who call 911 in case of an overdose from being arrested.
As the overdose epidemic swells, communities are taking positive steps to protect those at risk and their loved ones from preventable tragedy. But as they say in AA, the first step toward fixing a problem is acknowledging that there is one. We, as a nation, need to acknowledge that overdose is not a problem confined to famous people or heroin or drugs that involve syringes. As long as we think "Overdose is for people who use illegal drugs, I'm OK with a bottle of Oxycontin and a cold beer," then tens of thousands of people will continue to die every year. I wish that Philip Seymour Hoffman had another chance to make great movies. I wish the media would stop focusing on what he was wearing or what was in his arm. But I hope that with growing national consciousness about the overdose epidemic, we will realize that deaths like Hoffman's are the exception, not the rule, and will continue to support prevention programs that save lives from overdose in all its forms.