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.
Toward the end of the 1970s, heroin overtook cocaine and cannabis as the recreational drug of choice. When high-strength opioid painkillers Vicodin and Percocet emerged on the market, medical professionals were wary about prescribing addictive substances to patients.
Drug companies spent most of the 1980s trying to convince doctors opioid painkillers were effective and beneficial; in the late 1980s, doctors started buying into the idea of controlled opioids as valid painkillers. Then Purdue Pharma came along in 1996 with OxyContin and an aggressive marketing campaign, changing everything. By 1999, pharmacists filled more than 11 million OxyContin prescriptions. Other brands of opioid painkillers followed suit.
Though it's little compensation for jump-starting America's worst drug epidemic, Purdue Pharma had to pay the government a nearly $635 million settlement in 2007. This penalty was for failing to inform consumers their product was highly addictive.
A significant reason why the opiate crisis is so deadly: People aren't only ingesting heroin and painkillers. They are also - sometimes unknowingly - abusing fentanyl, a synthetic opioid created as an anesthetic. It's stronger than heroin; only 3 milligrams of fentanyl comprises a lethal dose for an average adult male, compared to 30 milligrams of heroin. Since the two substances have similar appearances, people sometimes don't know what they're taking.
Both heroin and opiate pills often contain fentanyl because it's a cheaper ingredient, but makers might not always measure it correctly. Since fentanyl doesn't respond as well as heroin to naloxone, a drug used to remedy opioid overdose, it's challenging for doctors to revive a person who has overdosed on fentanyl.
In the late 1800s, researchers created heroin out of morphine. Bayer, the company famous for making aspirin, began marketing heroin as a cure for respiratory problems, such as asthma and tuberculosis, as well as a drug to help people recover from morphine addiction.
Heroin was widely available at the time, but a few years later, doctors realized it was more addictive than morphine. The rise in heroin-related crime and murder compelled the US government to prohibit heroin in 1924, forcing the drug's production and sale underground.
However, due to rampant addiction, heroin never completely went away. In the mid-2010s, the drug regained traction as people addicted to painkillers fell prey to heroin's abundance, convenience, and affordability.
According to the CDC, more than 63,000 Americans died from drug overdose in 2016; this figure surpasses the number of annual fatalities resulting from homicide, gun injuries, or car accidents. Adjusting the figure to include the years between 2016 and 1999, the number of deaths from drug overdose surges to more than 630,000.
More than 200,000 of those people lost their lives as a result of taking prescription opioids, such as Vicodin. As of 2017, drug overdose deaths were the No. 1 killer of Americans under the age of 50. Analysts believe more than 2 million people living in the US struggle with addiction.