Two headlines caught my eye yesterday: “Drug overdose deaths reach all-time high” and “Effort to curb painkiller prescribing faces stiff opposition.” Does anyone else see a life threatening contradiction here?
“Deaths from overdoses of prescription drugs and heroin continue to be the leading cause of unintentional death for Americans, rising 14% from 2013 to 2014. Last year, 47,055 people died from drug overdoses—1.5 times greater than the number killed in car crashes. Opioids are involved in 61% of all drug overdose deaths…. Since 2000, opioid drug overdoses have jumped 200%” (CNN). This is personal for me. Five years ago, my sister was one of these statistics. Yet I had lost her years before, as she battled opioid addiction for decades before she finally succumbed. For years her doctors prescribed her countless different opioids—sometimes as many as four different painkillers at once—all the while knowing she was addicted.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has long recognized the problem of overprescribing painkillers: “The United States is experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose (poisoning) deaths. Since 2000, the rate of deaths from drug overdoses has increased 137%, including a 200% increase in the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids (opioid pain relievers and heroin)” (CDC). The CDC has become so alarmed that it worked together with the federal government in an effort to curb the prescribing of highly addictive painkillers. And now, just as new prescribing guidelines were being finalized to be implemented in January 2016, the powerful pharmaceutical lobby has used its influence to oppose the implementation of the new guidelines.
Why? Because it is more important for pharmaceutical companies to make money than it is to save lives. They do not care how many people die from becoming addicted to their medications. This is the sad truth.
“The CDC decision to delay its guidelines followed months of lobbying by physician and patient groups aligned with the pharmaceutical industry, who have almost always had a seat at the table in federal discussions on opioids. As a result, they have had far more influence over federal policy than addiction activists, according to experts. ‘They’re very well-funded and they have a lot of pharma money behind them,’ said Dr. Lewis Nelson of New York University, an FDA adviser who is also advising the CDC on its guidelines” (Perrone).
The newly proposed guidelines would encourage doctors to prescribe these highly addictive drugs only as a last choice for chronic pain, after exploring all other options, including non-opioid pain relievers, physical therapy, and alternative treatments like biofeedback and acupuncture. They also would suggest that doctors prescribe the smallest supply possible, only three days or less, monitoring patients closely to see if they show significant improvement while taking the medication (Perrone). These guidelines would not even be binding. But the pharmaceutical lobby won’t have any part of it. They are not in the business of caring about what is best for people. They are in the business of making money. Period.
If you know someone who has lost the battle of addiction, or is fighting that battle right now, this is an issue you should care about. Contact your local legislators. Contact the CDC and the FDA. Write editorials expressing your opinion and telling your story. And in the meantime, call your local police force and EMTs, and ask if they carry naloxone, which can reverse a potentially fatal overdose. In some states, family members and friends of addicts can also carry naloxone. Suboxone is another new option to treat opioid addiction, and can be administered by a physician. I wish these options had been available for my sister, and for everyone else I know who has experienced opioid addiction. If drugmakers are not going to be accountable, these are the only options left to us.