THE BLOG
01/25/2016 05:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

We Know the Cure to the Opioid Epidemic

Like many others, Bill suffered lower back pain. He was prescribed hydrocodone and then methadone, and an overdose killed him at age 33.

Lance was prescribed opioids for a root canal, after which the Army veteran became addicted. He died in a Texas hotel room of an overdose at age 26.

Michael was prescribed hydrocodone for Crohn's disease when he was 18 and, after almost three years of escalating dosages, he took his own life with a shotgun after being unable to find a treatment program.

The stories of Bill, Lance, and Michael are horrifying ones, all of them beginning with a seemingly benign prescription from a doctor. The painful details of these tragedies reveal the depth of the problem. But the scope of the problem has been growing for decades as revealed in autopsies, mortality statistics and epidemiological research.

Last November, a study was released saying that white adults, ages 45 to 54, were seeing their death rate rise as a result of a substantial increase in prescription drug overdoses. The New York Times has published two articles in the last week, calling attention to the steady increase in prescription drug overdoses which has raised the death rates for white adults 25 to 34, and showing that drug overdose deaths have jumped in nearly every county in the nation.

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There are a lot of numbers that can be cited on the issue of overdose deaths. We can talk about death rates going back 15 years, about the racial breakdown and poverty and the geographic trends. We can even reflect on how the issue is gaining traction in the presidential primaries. But the central issue becomes clearest when we compare a series of line graphs, some showing a death rate trending downward and the other a death rate climbing upward.

The downward trend lines reflect the progress medical science has made in impacting threats like heart disease, cancer and HIV, extending the lifespans of thousands. The lines climbing upward reflect how the overprescribing of opioid painkillers has virtually wiped out that progress, shortening tens of thousands of lives every year.

In sum, our medical science is helping people live longer, but medicines are helping people die.

Every day in the United States, 52 people die from an overdose of prescribed opioid painkillers. In 2014, there were more overdose deaths from opioids than from heroin and cocaine combined. Most agree on the causes behind the problem, citing uneven prescribing guidelines, marketing of the drugs by the pharmaceutical industry, few limitations on access to the drugs, economic factors and an inadequate number of treatment facilities for drug misuse, abuse and dependence.

The causes behind these trends are complex and intertwined, varying from place to place and from person to person. The solutions are far more straightforward though.

The National Safety Council has joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other national organizations in calling for broader and more consistent use of state Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs to reduce the availability of opioid painkillers. We also are supporting the publishing of clear guidance for prescribing opioid painkillers for a simple reason: the risks of opioids are outweighing the benefits.

Over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen, naproxen and acetaminophen can be as effective or more effective than opioid painkillers, but without the risks of abuse or addiction. Opioids are more expensive, can delay recovery from injury or surgery, and have side effects that pose a safety risk in a work place or on the road. Further, research indicates 80 percent of new heroin users started with prescription painkillers.

These are good reasons to be thoughtful, if not outright resistant to using opioid painkillers. Opioids are killing more than 18,000 people every year, so asking your doctor, nurse or pharmacist about the alternative options for pain relief and whether opioids are necessary.

At the National Safety Council, we know if we are going to eliminate preventable deaths in our lifetime, people like Bill, Lance and Michael might be alive today if they had known to ask these questions and had the opportunity to make informed decisions about managing their pain.

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Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.