Opioids: A Public Health Emergency

The fentanyl-laced lollipop illustrates the double-edge sword of opiates. Invented to deliver palatable pain relief to cancer patients, the sweet combined with a powerful and addictive opiate eventually found its way out of the hospital and into the general population. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. A few grains of a new street version can kill a user.

No community has been spared, and no one is seemingly immune to these drugs — most of them legal — that have frightening addictive powers. Opioid-related addiction and deaths are also very real occurrences in the Jewish community, which like everyone else is struggling to manage a problem that has swept up middle-aged adults as well as teens.

The statistics are staggering: An estimated 64,000 people died in 2016, up a reported 19 percent from the year before. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50. This is what a public health emergency looks like.

With the stakes so high, we support the efforts of the attorneys general of 10 states who are suing pharmaceutical companies that make opioids. Other states are investigating the marketing and sales practices of drug makers. Drug companies point out that federal regulators have approved their products. But they get no sympathy from Mike Moore, Mississippi’s attorney general in the 1990s, who led states in a lawsuit against Big Tobacco and won.

“What they did was they lied about the addictive nature of these drugs just like the tobacco industry did,” he told NPR. Drug manufacturer “Purdue said that there was a less than 1 percent chance of getting addicted by taking their OxyContin under a doctor’s care.”

In the area of public policy, officials should look for instances of overprescribing, such as the common occurrence of a postpartum mother leaving the hospital with a prescription for a 30-day supply of opioids. What typically happens is that patients who are hooked when their prescriptions run out will look for cheaper alternatives, leading them to fentanyl or heroin. There is a clear and documented pattern to this dangerous progression.

Given the seriousness of the crisis, it comes as a relief that Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) withdrew from consideration for drug czar. The accusations against him — that he sponsored legislation to hinder the Drug Enforcement Administration in its fight against the opioid crisis — if true, are deeply troubling.

We’ve previously called for treatment and prevention as remedies for the opioid crisis, rather than criminalization. But we still need meaningful education and guidance about the ravaging effects of addiction. This is a crisis that needs to be fought on multiple fronts. And the drug companies should help pay for the remedies. Like the tobacco companies who misleadingly described their product as safe and non-addictive, Big Pharma must no longer be allowed to trade people’s lives for profits.

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