America’s relationship with opioid medications has grown and changed over the past 100 years. Today, the medications are connected to a national public health epidemic. The statistics are alarming, and getting worse. Since the situation is complicated, everyone—from providers to patients to politicians—needs to be part of the solution.
Opioids include opium derived drugs (i.e. morphine and heroin) and synthetic drugs (i.e. hydrocodone, oxycodone, and fentanyl.)
A Brief History
Use of opioid medications began before the Civil War. In 1898, Bayer Pharmaceuticals introduced heroin into the commercial marketplace. Opioid medications (including heroin) were widely available to treat a variety of conditions for the next twenty years. During the 1920s, doctors recognized the addictive nature of these medications. Heroin was outlawed in 1924.
For the next 50 years, doctors avoided prescribing opioid medications to minimize the risks of addiction. Popular belief began to change in the 1970s. A few studies came out that questioned the widespread beliefs about the true addictive risks of opioid medications. Over the next 30 years, three new opioid medications came out.
Percocet, Vicodin, and OxyContin brought the debate around opioid medications back into the forefront. During the 1990s, doctors wrote millions of additional prescriptions for opioid medications annually. Year over year, the total numbers increased throughout the decade. Although as availability increased, more people became addicted or accidentally overdosed. Once again, people began to question the safety of these medications.
Today, steps are being taken at local, state, and federal levels to combat the overuse of opioid medications and heroin. Although illegal, heroin plays a role in the epidemic. Due to increasing restrictions on prescriptions, some patients find it easier to use heroin instead. The opioid epidemic is a complex problem that needs a comprehensive approach to begin to reverse it.
- According to the American Public Health Association, prescription drug abuse has been the top public health concern since 1999. Since that point, the rate has doubled in 29 states, tripled in 10 states, and quadrupled in 4 states.
- Someone dies every 19 minutes from an unintentional overdose.
- Drug overdoses are part of the reason that American life expectancy has declined.
- In 2015, more than 52,000 people died from drug overdoses. Two thirds were linked to opioids.
- Deaths from drug overdoses are still on the rise.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 20 billion dollars is spent on emergency department and inpatient care for opioid poisonings. Health and social costs related to prescription opioid abuse are closer to 55 billion dollars.
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