A new report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reveals that the rate of deaths which involve prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and Oxycontin have more than tripled in a thirteen year time span between 1999 and 2012. Keeping pace with that opioid painkiller death rate is that of rising heroin-related death, also nearly tripling in the same period of time.
A Burgeoning Epidemic
Dr. Andrew Kolodny, director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing as well as chief medical officer for the Phoenix House, a nonprofit addiction treatment agency, cites the marketing campaigns launched by manufacturers of prescription painkillers for the opioid epidemic which had its beginnings in the late 1990s.
According to Kolodny, it was in the late 1990s that doctors began to aggressively prescribe the painkillers for chronic pain, even common conditions such as headache, fibromyalgia or low-back pain. The makers of the drug pushed their marketing message to doctors—that the opiod painkillers were the compassionate way to treat their patient’s complaints of pain. Physicians were also told their patients did not face a high risk of addiction, as fear of addiction could act as a barrier to sales of the drugs, such as Oxycontin.
As a consequence, there was a parallel increase in both addiction and overdose deaths as the rate of opioid prescriptions increased. The death rates include those with chronic pain issues who take too many pills accidentally, as well a young people who are experimenting with the drugs for the first time.
More recently, it seems that as the medical community has become aware of the consequences of over-prescribing; it has begun to prescribe more cautiously, a necessity to helping bring the opioid painkiller epidemic under control. At the same time, as these pills become more difficult to acquire, there is the potential for the shift to heroin use to continue to increase more rapidly.
Beginning in the early 2000s, a percentage of painkiller addicts, frequently those who were using the drugs recreationally, started switching to a different opioid—heroin— because it easier and cheaper to get than opioid painkillers. According to Kolodny, young people don’t have medical issues, thus making it harder for them to get the painkillers.
Kolodny notes that heroin overdoses are typically in those in their twenties, yet they are dying a rate much lower than the middle-aged and older who are getting the prescription painkiller pills from their doctors. This may be due to heroin users routinely taking lower doses of heroin in comparison to prescription pill users who are getting massive doses of the opiod drugs from their doctors.
According to the recent CDC report, there were approximately 6,000 heroin-related overdoses in 2012, compared to 16,000 prescription painkiller-related overdoses. But another factor which needs to be taken into account is that while there was a recent decline in the prescription painkiller-caused death rate, there was a 35 percent leap in the heroin-caused death rate in one year alone–from 2011 to 2012.
Kolodny notes that young addicts frequently use with their peers, buying drugs and injecting drugs together. But when one of their peers overdoses, young addicts are often afraid to get medical help, and are afraid to call 911. In part, their fear stems from the fact that police might come to the scene of the overdose, and they might get arrested. While some states have passed and implemented Good Samaritan laws in an effort to get around this problem, the overdose rate continues to rise.
If you or someone you know is struggling with heroin or prescription painkiller abuse, there is help. Please call us toll-free at 1-800-468-6933 for more information.