America’s Opioid Epidemic and the Irresponsible Pharmaceutical Industry

 

Steven E. White

Americans struggle in the midst of an opioid epidemic, as tens of thousands of people lose their lives, in the United States alone, from drug overdose each year; specifically, opiate overdoses. Big pharmaceutical companies are to blame for the mass distribution and legalization of certain drugs containing opium, which are known for containing extremely addictive and harmful properties. There are plenty of alternatives to opioid painkillers, but prescribers seem to care more about your money than health, as they prescribe you addictive drugs so you might come back for more and more.

 

We all know of heroin, and although it’s not legal or prescribed, we’ll start here because it is an alternative many turn to, from painkillers, because it’s cheaper and easier to get. Heroin is a highly addictive analgesic drug derived from morphine, consumed illegally to produce a euphoric state in the user. From this drug, alone, almost 15,500 Americans died in 2016. This is sad, in it of itself. What is perhaps more tragic, is that over 23,000 individuals have lost their lives in 2016 to legal, over-the counter synthetic opioids like methadone, or readily available drugs, easily ordered online. Another 14,000 died from natural and semi-synthetic opioids during that time. That’s 62,000 deaths between the three. 2015 saw similar numbers; drug overdose being the leading cause of accidental death, at that time.

 

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, 2 million of all Americans, 12, or older, had a substance use disorder involving prescription pain relievers. An additional 591,000 had an addiction to heroin. It is estimated that of all the heroin users, 23% of them will develop an opioid addiction. Women have a greater chance to develop addiction to opioids, as they are more likely to have chronic pain, be prescribed prescription painkillers, use them longer, and be prescribed greater doses. From 1999 to 2010, prescription pain reliever overdose deaths among women increased more than 400%, compared to 237% in men. Sadly, heroine deaths among women had tripled during the time from 2010 to 2013, from 0.4, to 1.2 per 100,000 women. People often turn from painkillers to heroin, as it is cheaper and easier to get. For this reason, 94% of respondents in a 2014 survey of people in treatment for opioid addiction, say they chose to obtain heroin, instead of prescription.

 

A few opioid drugs sold under brand names are: OxyContin, Percocet, Palladone, Vicodin, Percodan, Tylox, Demerol, and Duramorph. From 1999 to 2008, as overdose death rates rose each year, uncoincidentally, there was a parallelled increase in sales of prescription pain relievers, such as the before mentioned.

 

A good friend of mine, we’ll call him Peter, was admitted to a hospital for wounds from an accident, where he was given a button he could press when the pain became too much. The button, when activated, would release opioid painkillers into his blood. Over the weeks, while bedridden with his wife in the bed next to him, and to his great fall, he became addicted to the substance. When he was released onto the streets, his body ached and pained for the drug. He wasn’t able to sleep, and he shook with an irrational, but understandable, need for the drug. He eventually gave in and started to use heroin. His wife shortly followed suit. As time passed, they lost their jobs, their house, and their family, as they were disowned, and their children taken away. They’ve lived on the streets for years now, as my friend told me in a sitting, with tears in his eyes, “I can’t keep living like this man. I would’ve never taken the painkillers had I known they’d do this to me; to my mind.”

 

Overdose is tragic and we need to take action against future incidents, even though that is not the only issue caused by using these drugs. Drug and opioid addiction is expensive and has dangerous effects on the body and mind. If you don’t die by slowly increasing your doses(because the euphoric effects take greater doses over time) then, usually, you will lose everything you love, as you become obsessed and dependant on the substance.

 

In a study by the American Medical Association, researchers questioned if opioids work better than other drugs. The study took 416 ER patients, and separated them into four groups. Three of the groups received a combination of common opioid painkillers plus 300 mg of acetaminophen(commonly known as Tylenol). The fourth group received 400mg of ibuprofen(a non-opioid painkiller) plus 1,000mg of acetaminophen. The results? All four groups experienced the same level of pain relief. So why do pharmaceutical companies push opioids so much? The simple answer is greed. Why advertise and prescribe Tylenol when you can prescribe an opioid with the same effect and get patients addicted to it; thus bringing them back for more and more.