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Is There Really An “Opiate Epidemic?”

We often hear the term “opiate epidemic” in the news, and other media resources, but do we fully understand what that means and how we got here in the first place?

An opiate is any drug that is a derivative of the opium poppy. The terms “opiate” and “opioid” explain two different things, however in common culture they are used interchangeably. An opiate is technically a natural derivative of the poppy, whereas opioids are partially or even completely synthetic. There is a long list of prescription pain killers that fall under these categories such as Codeine, Morphine, Dilaudid, Oxycontin, Hydrocodone, and many others. There are also illegal powder forms of these substances found on the streets such as Heroin, Fentanyl and Carfentanyl.

In the late 90s some new forms of opiate prescription painkillers were introduced to the market and a massive amount of marketing was created by the drug manufacturers to push these new painkillers as well as some of the old ones.  The early marketing push that was produced by these companies was extremely deceptive and promoted these products as being virtually non-addictive. On the contrary, it has been proven that opioids are some of the, if not the, most addictive substances on Earth.

Opiates began to appeal to older people and young adults alike because of their ability to not only make physical pain go away, but their ability to also ease stress and anxiety.  Because pain is not quantifiable like blood pressure or heart rate, it is only measurable by and entrusted to the patients discretion. This allowed an easy gateway to abuse. Patients were now able to tell a doctor whatever they needed to hear in order to receive a prescription for a highly addictive drug.

Purdue Pharma eventually gained national spotlight and notoriety for their deceptive marketing tactics and for flooding the United States with its most well known and lethal opioid painkiller Oxycontin in the late 90s and early 2000s. This was not only one of the most popular opioids in the market but one of the strongest as well. However, by 2006 it was no longer the major manufacturers, but more obscure generic ones that were selling the majority of opioid pills.  The three that held the majority stake in pain pill distribution in the US were Mallinckrodt, Par Pharmaceuticals, and Activis.

More than 100 billion doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone were shipped nationwide between 2006 and 2014. This data traces the path of every pain pill shipped in the US during that period. The volume of pills distributed coincided with the rise in opioid deaths in the country.  More than 130,000 Americans died from opiate overdoses during this eight year period. Six companies were responsible for 76 percent of the pills distributed:  Walgreens, Walmart, CVS, McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen.

Some of the states were flooded with over 60 pain pills per resident living in them. West Virginia led the list at 66.8 pills per person per year and had the highest prescription opioid death rate during the same period. The lethality of opioid pills alone was undeniable. The problem arose even further when people addicted to these painkillers found that their tolerances rose astronomically sometimes beyond what their doctors were willing to prescribe them or beyond what they could afford. This caused them to seek out a much cheaper alternative, heroin.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse reports that 80 percent of heroin addicts started out with prescription opioids. Heroin overdoses rose subsequently as addicts began moving in mass numbers from pills to the much cheaper heroin in the streets. As if this wasn’t bad enough, in 2015 the US saw a huge surge of Fentanyl flooding the streets. Fentanyl, and its even deadlier relative Carfentanyl, are even cheaper and much more potent opiates than heroin. Again, the amount of opiate overdoses skyrocketed in response. It seemed the stronger the opiate available, the cheaper and more easily accessible it became.

This is the definition of an epidemic. Between 1999 and 2017 an estimated 702,000 people have lost their lives to opiate overdoses. The latest Statistics show that over 70,000 people on average a year are dying from opiate overdoses now. That is approximately 192 deaths a day, and one death every seven and a half minutes in the US alone. We, as a nation, have an extreme cause for alarm.