Laura Walker is a senior business administration and accounting double major. She is a guest writer from Louisville, Ky.
If you’ve ever had stitches, broken a bone or had your wisdom teeth extracted, it’s safe to assume that an opioid painkiller has been in your home. It may still be. 214 million opioid prescriptions were written in 2016, enough for almost every adult in the nation to have a bottle according to the American Physical Therapy Association.
In 1996, Purdue Pharma released a powerful analgesic painkiller known as OxyContin that was purported to safely and effectively mitigate pain. This moment in medical history marked the beginning of America’s now two-decade long struggle with opioid addiction.
Dr. Richard Sackler, Director of Purdue Pharma, and the rest of the company employed an aggressive marketing tactic designed to eradicate any fears held by physicians regarding the addictive nature of opioid painkillers. Citing cherry-picked statistics that lacked context, and arming sales representatives with branded mugs, pens and even plush toys, Purdue Pharma (and later, a number of other large drug manufacturers) was able to convince both prescribing physicians and the public that opioid use was a safe, healthy method to manage pain ranging from post-operative discomfort to chronic back issues.
Throughout the course of the next decade, individuals who were originally legitimately prescribed opioids started to become addicted to them, and needed a consistently higher dosage to feel any relief. Because the drug was prescribed and marketed to people of all socio-economic backgrounds and races, the demographics of users (and abusers) spanned neighborhoods, cities and people across the nation.
The Appalachian region, however, was hit the hardest. As an area that generally lacks the soil necessary for high-yield farming, Appalachia’s workforce consisted, in large part, of blue-collar industrial jobs that could lead to workplace injuries. As America’s economy boomed and labor moved offshore, many of these jobs vanished from the region, leaving many on unemployment, without jobs and without experience to get work in the service sector. As these economic trends mixed with the rise in accessible painkillers, communities were decimated.
As it became more difficult to convince physicians to continue needlessly prescribing painkillers to addicts, individuals struggling with addiction would intentionally break their own bones, or subject themselves to severe injury to be written prescriptions. While this tactic was effective in obtaining the pills they needed, opioids remained far too expensive to continually pay for with little access to jobs or income. As a result, many turned to heroin: the chemical cousin of a prescription painkillers which is more potent, cheaper and readily available. While heroin is easier and cheaper to obtain, it is far less regulated and far more dangerous.
In 2017, Ohio had the second-highest rate of opioid-related deaths in the nation. Opioids are, on average, prescribed to 63.5 out of every 100 patients in the state, significantly higher than the national average.
Across the nation, opioid overdoses have risen 419 percent in the last 10 years. Opioid abuse has, especially in recent years, proven itself to be an epidemic-level crisis. Because most heroin addicts graduated from opioids prescribed in good faith, it falls on drug manufacturers, distributors and prescribing physicians to raise their standards for opioid prescriptions. The development and distribution Nalaxone, sold under the name Narcan, used for treating overdoses, has saved countless lives. Until more Narcan can be distributed to communities across the country, comprehensive drug education can be implemented and oversight into drug manufacturers and distribution agencies is expanded, opioid addiction will continue to ravage communities across the country, and in Cincinnati. f