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Opiate Addiction: A Growing Public Health Issue

May 20, 2015

The Annual Review of Public Health recently released data on the startling rise of opiate addiction in the United States. Use of these drugs increased so much that in 2014, the Annual Review wrote that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention placed opioid abuse on its top five list of greatest public health challenges. The report revealed that between 1999 and 2011, use of oxycodone and hydrocodone had increased by 500 percent, and deaths due to overdose were four times higher during this 12-year span.

2 million Opioid Addiction

In addition, the Annual Review wrote that between 1997 and 2011, opiate addiction treatment had grown by an astonishing 900 percent. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimated that there are approximately 2.1 million people in this country who have substance abuse issues related to prescribed opioids and another 467,000 who are addicted to heroin.

Furthermore, the NIDA stated that the U.S. is the world’s biggest user of prescribed opioids, consuming 81 percent of all oxycodone and nearly 100 percent of hydrocodone. All of this data reveals a problem that has grown exponentially in scale and, unfortunately, shows no signs of regression. This has created a public health concern of massive proportions, so much so that the government has begun taking steps to attack the problem.

In late March, President Barack Obama attended the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, where he sat on a panel which focused on the use of anti-addiction drugs to combat opioid addiction. This panel was comprised largely of law enforcement officials, health care professionals and those in recovery from addiction–as well as their families. The President wants to have $1.1 billion in federal funding approved that would go to opioid-specific treatment as opposed to the current strategy of incarcerating those with drug problems.

“The most important thing we can do is reduce demand for drugs, and the only way that we reduce demand is by providing treatment and thinking about this as a public health problem and not just a criminal issue,” USA Today reported the President as saying. “Part of what has made it difficult to emphasize treatment over criminal justice system [incarceration] has to do with the fact that the populations affected in the past were … stereotypically identified as poor and minority. One of the things that’s changed … is a recognition that this reaches everybody.”

In 2014, 47,055 people died from overdoses. Not only is this number higher than deaths caused by vehicle crashes, it is the largest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in U.S. history. Of these deaths, heroin and prescription opioids contributed to 28,000 of the lives lost, with 10,500 related exclusively to heroin use, according to USA Today.

In the context of public health–and the rate at which people are becoming addicted and, in many cases, overdosing–opioids are a huge concern. The challenge lies in being able to create an effective plan to help limit access to these drugs, while offering more treatment options and moving away from simply incarcerating those who could benefit from comprehensive medical care to help them overcome their addiction.