After being mentioned at the top of President Obama’s State of the Union Address, the heroin epidemic made it onto the stage during Saturday night’s Republican Presidential Debate in New Hampshire. Leading into the discussion, ABC anchor David Muir noted that heroin overdoses are now the second leading cause of death in the granite state with 48 percent of the state’s residents saying they know someone who has abused the drug. Josh McElveen, ABC’s anchor and political director asked the candidates how they would handle the heroin/opioid crisis. Ted Cruz and Chris Christie were quick to jump in with solutions. Cruz, after once again talking about a half-sister who abused drugs and possibly died from an overdose, said the problem needed to be solved on the state and local level. But he and Christie also repeated that solving the heroin epidemic meant securing our borders with Mexico where most of the heroin comes into the U.S. Christie also pointed to what he helped accomplish in New Jersey, making sure that non-violent drug users get help rather than prison time.
While those proposals cannot be dismissed – we do need to secure our borders and not treat drug users as criminals – no one is getting to the heart of this problem. The heroin epidemic has happened because drug companies aggressively market and physicians overprescribe painkillers like Percocet, Vicodin, and Oxycontin. These powerful opioids are supposed to help patients deal with serious pain, yet too often are dispensed like aspirin. Once those pills are gone and the prescription can’t be renewed, the patient may try to buy those pills on the street. Doing so, however, is expensive with one pill costing as much as $30. Heroin, which has the exact chemical composition as Oxycontin, delivers the same high, is cheap, and readily available from the local drug dealer. Using heroin is not like taking a pill, where a doctor instructs the dosage. There’s no quality control with drug dealers who often add powerful substances like Fentanyl, 50 times more powerful than morphine. No wonder so many users end up overdosing and dying. And now the drug companies are advertising drugs to help sufferers deal with opioid-indiced constipation! How crazy is that?
Big Pharma is powerful, spending billions of dollars a year to produce, market, and advertise their drugs. Drug company officials also spend a great deal of time and money lobbying in Washington, D.C., fighting against anything that might impede the pharmaceutical industry’s ability to increase its bottom line. Painkillers have been a boon to these companies. Admitting that these pills have helped ignite this heroin epidemic is not something any drug company executive is about to do. And no one in Washington is pushing them to do that, either. Where is the outrage from the candidates? Why isn’t there any call for accountability being demanded by those running for our nation’s highest office?
Testifying in January before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Vermont Governor Peter Sumlin noted: “We simply pass out painkillers like candy in America.” He told about a college sophomore who had her molars removed and was given a prescription for 40 painkillers.
Like so many people I have spoken with, I have stories, too. The time I also had a dental procedure and received a ton of Vicodin. Or the occasion when I had a sinus treatment and came home with a huge bottle of Oxycontin. Both times I questioned the physician about being given so many pills and was told, “some people need that many.” Not, in my mind, a good explanation. I didn’t take any of those pills. I didn’t need them.
Recently I heard from a friend whose husband had injured his foot and thought he might have broken a bone. He had pain but not a lot, nothing that couldn’t be handled with a Tylenol or Advil. Yet the young physician assistant (the couple never saw an actual doctor) kept insisting that the man needed a prescription for hydrocodone. Her “medical” explanation? “If you are sent a questionnaire to rate my performance, I don’t want you saying I sent you home in pain.” This is a good reason for prescribing a pain killer? Unwilling to argue and prolong their time in the emergency room, they took the prescription. They never filled it.
What will it take to turn around this national crisis? And make no mistake, it is a crisis. We are losing lives, in many cases, young lives. Families are being torn apart. Ask Linda Lajterman, whose 19 year-old son, Danny, died from an overdose two years ago this month. Hoping to spare other families that pain she wrote Life After You: What Your Death from Drugs Leaves Behind. Her book has already saved many lives and should be placed in the hands of teens and young adults.
At least three presidential candidate – Cruz, Jeb Bush, and Carly Fiorina – have talked about losing family members to drug abuse. Yet the policies they continue to put forth fall short. Instead what voters receive are safe solutions. No one is going to argue against securing our borders or helping drugs abusers. Yes, that should happen. But this epidemic is never going to be stopped unless we get to the root of the problem – the overprescribing of pain killers.
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