Weird History
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How Prescriptions In The 1980s Sparked The Worst Drug Crisis In US History

Updated August 6, 2018 32.5k views15 items

In 2016, an estimated 63,600 people in the United States died from drug overdoses. Around 66% of those deaths involved opioid painkillers - "alternative heroin," including a dangerous synthetic version called fentanyl - as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The statistic alarmed the public, yet only confirmed the emotional and psychological pain already experienced by the victims and their families.

It also served as a wake-up call to government leadership, which had previously tied the situation to illicit activity and swept it under the rug of stigma. But it proved the US had a significant problem; the country's opioid crisis has become the worst drug epidemic in American history.

Opioid painkillers are helpful for people who experience chronic pain, whether due to illness or influenced by their profession; unfortunately, these drugs may also lead to severe addiction. Medical professionals, pharmaceutical lobbies, and politicians have all played a role, but the crisis remains everybody's problem, affecting people of every race and income level.

The US opioid epidemic began when prescription painkillers debuted in the 1980s and became mass-marketed by pharmaceutical companies in the 1990s. However, using opioids to fight pain dates back to ancient times. Poppy plant derivations include morphine, heroin, and painkillers such as Percocet and Vicodin. When counterfeit synthetics began replacing pure opium, the situation worsened.

Banning these drugs isn't a viable option for thousands of people who live with debilitating physical pain. This epidemic is complicated due to many factors and the lack of easy answers, but considering the opioid epidemic statistics surge every year, the US needs a solution soon.

  • Photo: K-State Research and Extension / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    Doctors Often Overprescribe Opioid Painkillers

    The US accounts for 80% of the world's opioid prescriptions. It's often easier to take a pill than use other methods of pain management, and many patients receive more pills than they need. A 2018 study found doctors were overprescribing opioids, such as OxyContin. According to Elizabeth Habermann, the scientific director for surgical outcomes at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN:

    Fewer than 10% of patients disposed of their leftover opioids. We know from the literature that many individuals who are taking heroin actually started their use of narcotics with leftover prescription opioids prescribed to others. So this is a huge risk to our community.

    Some doctors were also allegedly abusing their ability to write prescriptions for strong drugs. One Ohio doctor faced four life terms in prison for his laissez-faire policy toward prescribing opioids.

  • Photo: pxhere / pxhere / CC0 1.0

    Many American Health Insurance Providers Won't Cover Alternative Pain Relief Methods

    It appears American doctors are quick to give patients experiencing pain a prescription for opioids, but due to the US health care system, medical professionals aren't always culpable. Many patients pay out-of-pocket or purchase government-subsidized plans with limited coverage.

    In many cases, especially with low-cost insurance, companies refuse to pay for alternative pain treatments, such as physical therapy, chiropractic services, and acupuncture. Some insurance companies that do cover these alternative options require vast paperwork and prior authorization before patients receive treatment. In these cases, a pill is one of the most readily available remedies.

  • Photo: GamblinMan22 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Not Enough Clinics Have Proper Equipment To Treat Widespread Opioid Addiction

    Fighting opioid addiction isn't easy - only 1 in 10 addicts will receive treatment, according to a 2016 report by the US surgeon general. The World Health Organization believes the best method of combating opioid addiction is a combination of counseling and medications such as methadone. However, of the more than 12,000 drug treatment facilities in the US, only around 41% offer medication for opioid addiction.

    The lack of clinics and potentially lifesaving drugs means people must sometimes travel great distances to find proper treatment. Vivitrol (naltrexone) can curb opiate addiction, but it's only effective if the person has completely detoxed. The anti-addiction drug Suboxone (buprenorphine) suppresses cravings and withdrawal; however, doctors must obtain special authorization before they can prescribe it. Despite some health care professionals completing this special training, they can only prescribe Suboxone to a limited number of patients.

    With the 2016 Cures Act, the US government designated $1 billion to help fight the opioid crisis over a two-year period. Experts argue billions more dollars are necessary for a full resolution. According to a 2016 study:

    The total economic burden is estimated to be $78.5 billion. Over one third of this amount is due to increased health care and substance abuse treatment costs ($28.9 billion). Approximately one quarter of the cost is borne by the public sector in health care, substance abuse treatment, and criminal justice costs.

  • Photo: pxhere / pxhere / CC0 1.0

    America Is One Of Two Countries That Allow Pharmaceutical Companies To Advertise On TV

    Some consider American pharmaceutical companies' wide-ranging marketing tactics part of the opioid problem. Drug companies may also bias doctors toward their products by offering free meals, swag, and kickbacks in exchange for touting their supplies. The pharmaceutical industry reportedly paid more than $8 billion in 2016 to individual doctors and teaching hospitals.

    America and New Zealand are the only two countries that allow drug companies to advertise on television, though the American Medical Association called for a ban on these commercials in 2015. By portraying satisfied clients in advertisements and making their brand name recognizable and familiar, drug companies compel patients to "ask their doctor" about often unnecessary and potentially harmful medications.