Opioid Epidemic Series Part I: A Very Human Problem

Part I of our series on the opioid epidemic examines how the relationship between prescription pain medication and street drugs such as heroin has created a crisis that has blindsided communities and families all over the country. 

What hits home about the opioid addiction crisis is the fact that it is not an abstract problem to the vast majority of people.  It’s reflected in the face of someone they know that is struggling.  Be it a family member, friend, co-worker or classmate, there is someone in their life that is suffering with addiction to opiates.  The stereotype of the heroin addict in the gutter has faded, as it is now known that opioid addiction is present in people of all ages, genders, races, religions and income levels. 


You would be hard pressed to find someone that has not been effected by this crisis currently ravaging America, but you may have a harder time finding someone who knows why this issue has spiraled out of control in the last two decades.  Over the course of this series, we will shed light on what has caused the spike in addiction rates and overdoses and then provide information about alternatives to the narcotic pain relief medications that are at the root of this issue. 


There were over 70,000 deaths caused by opioids in the United States during 2015 and 2016.  That is more than the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars combined. A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report even suggests that number may be underestimated


Legal prescription pills comprise the largest percentage of opioid overdose deaths, but they have also contributed heavily to the spike in heroin addiction and overdoses.  Four out of five new heroin addicts started by abusing narcotic pain medication.  This is why the demographic of users has become so diverse.  A 2015 CDC report states, “The greatest increases in heroin use occurred in demographic groups that historically have had lower rates of heroin use: doubling among women and more than doubling among non-Hispanic whites.”


Once people are addicted to painkillers, they are led to heroin because they cannot obtain another prescription and/or they run out of money to purchase pills illegally.  With OxyContin typically selling for $50 - $80 per pill on the street, heroin becomes a much more affordable option.  More people are using opioid pain medication, and in turn, more people are becoming addicted to heroin.


But why are more people of all demographics using more painkillers?  After all, oxycodone was first synthesized in 1917 and has been used to treat severe pain for many years prior to the current epidemic.  The answer is twofold.  First, a small but widely publicized studyconducted by a pain specialist doctor in 1986 concluded that opioid maintenance therapy for pain was safe and presented a minimal risk of addiction.  Prior to this, opioids were typically only prescribed to patients for very short periods of time (if they weren't terminally ill) for issues such as recovery from surgery or traumatic injury.  This changed in the late 1980s, as more doctors began to prescribe opioid pain medication for longer periods to treat conditions such as back pain. 


Second, pharmaceutical companies began to heavily market opioid pain pills.  This led to an explosion in the number of prescriptions written, which meant massive profits for these companies.  This success led the pharmaceutical industry to further market opiates as the best way to manage pain.  Un-coincidentally, the United States now consumes 99% of the world’s hydrocodone as well as 80% of all oxycodone. 


Part II of our series will examine how pharmaceutical companies have significantly contributed to the opioid crisis in America. 


Read part II here


Read Part III here