Roy Halladay. Tom Petty. Prince. Heath Ledger. Philip Seymour Hoffman. These are just a few celebrities who have died as a result of opioid abuse. Since Prince’s death in 2016, 55,000 ordinary Americans have died from opioid use.The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that the death rate in 2018 could be even worse. And Friday night’s news that rock star Tom Petty died from his own preventable painkiller overdose, more than a year after Prince, underscores how far there is to go.
Many of them were not what we would identify as run-of-the-mill drug users. They were prescribed opioids as a way to manage chronic pain and they became addicted. Once the addiction took hold, it was too late.
The problems are systemic, and too entrenched to be shaken by a few high-profile victims. About 91 people now die from opioid overdoses every day, the CDC says—a conservative estimate—thanks to a potent mix of stigmas, addictions, lack of awareness and inadequate access to care and prevention.
“Too many people still think it’s a moral failing,” said Regina LaBelle, a drug policy official in the Obama administration. “Too many doctors don’t screen for or recognize addiction, so we have too much untreated addiction.”
The opioid epidemic has also made some pharmaceutical companies very rich, a real barrier to getting the industry to buy into change. Sales of prescription opioids almost quadrupled between 1999 and 2014 as the number of prescriptions soared. By 2010, there were more than eight opioid prescriptions for every 10 people. Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, have sold more than $25 billion worth of the drug in the past decade.
Meanwhile, more than 250,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the past decade. Some projections say that could double in the decade ahead, under worst-case scenarios.
We have to move beyond morality and criminality and deal with the real problem. If the opioid crisis remains in the shadows, more people will die and they’ll be your family members, your friends, perhaps even you.