What We’re All Getting Wrong About America’s Opioid Crisis
By Perri Peltz
It’s only natural, when faced with a tragedy of staggering proportions, to retreat behind the barricades of our prejudices and preconceptions. It’s comforting to imagine there’s something about the victims of that tragedy, some flaw or failing that made them vulnerable to it while we are not. There is a false sense of security that comes from blaming victims.
It’s natural, it’s comforting and — as I’ve discovered while working on a documentary for HBO, Warning: This Drug May Kill You about America’s deepening crisis of opioid addiction — it’s dead wrong.
The truth is, America is in the throes of one of the worst public health crises in its history. It’s a public health crisis that has no respect for class or income or social status. Last year alone, 33,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses. That’s more than all the victims of car accidents, or of gun homicides. And while many of us, as I’ve seen, might want to imagine that the victims of the opioid crisis are somehow different from us, that they are drug abusers looking to get high, they are not.
According to one study, three-quarters of America’s heroin users did not become addicted with heroin bought on the street. Rather, their opioid addiction began with a prescription, often written by a well-meaning doctor. That should come as no surprise. For decades, pharmaceutical companies minimized the risks of opioids, especially the risks of addiction, and exaggerated their benefits. Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, for example, sponsored educational programs for prescribers that claimed long-term opioid use rarely led to addiction.
That was nonsense then, as the company acknowledged in 2007 when it pleaded guilty and received a record fine in a criminal case for lying about the addiction risks of OxyContin. It’s nonsense now. As opioid prescribing soared, so did addiction and overdose. The latest data shows that 91 people lose their life every day to an opioid overdose.
Its victims are people like you and me. And yet, for nearly 20 years now, policymakers responded to the prescription opioid crisis by focusing on teenagers experimenting with drugs found in medicine chests. Nobody was asking why medicine chests across the country were stocked with heroin’s chemical cousins- prescription opioids like Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin- to name just a few.
It’s past time to rethink that approach.
If we are truly going to confront this epidemic, we must first call it what it is: an epidemic of addiction caused by overexposing the population to a highly addictive class of drugs. To bring the epidemic under control we must prevent new cases of opioid addiction through more cautious prescribing. And for the millions who are already addicted, we must ensure that effective treatment is easier to access than prescription opioids, heroin and fentanyl.
We must enlist our medical professionals as the first line of defense. Halting first steps toward that end are already being taken in several states with passage of laws intended to limit opioid prescribing. These efforts will be bolstered if President Trump appoints an FDA commissioner willing to prohibit opioid makers from promoting aggressive prescribing.
Far more needs to be done to ensure that people suffering from opioid addiction receive effective treatment. Buprenorphine, one of the most effective medications for opioid addiction, is much too difficult to access. Regulatory barriers and obstacles put in place by health insurance companies must be removed. Opioid addiction is a pernicious disease and the road to recovery is seldom straight. Relapse is common, especially in the early stages of treatment. Narcan, an opioid overdose antidote that can buy them another chance at recovery, must be widely available.
For any of these efforts to bear fruit, we must first address the single largest obstacle faced by people on the road to recovery: the shame and stigma they face in a country that has convinced itself that addiction is something that happens to somebody else. To tackle the opioid crisis we must finally recognize that addiction is not “their” problem, it’s ours.
Perri Peltz (director) is a documentary filmmaker, journalist and public health advocate whose previous film was the HBO documentary Risky Drinking. Additionally, Perri directed Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro, Sr. and The Education of Dee Dee Ricks for HBO. She is a director with The Conversation Cooperative for New York Times/Op-Docs. Before becoming a filmmaker, Perri was a journalist with NBC, ABC and CNN. She currently hosts two radio shows for the Sirius-XM Network.
Warning: This Drug May Kill You premieres on HBO on May 1, 2017. The documentary will also be available on HBO ON DEMAND, HBO NOW, HBO GO and affiliate portals.