What opioid epidemic?

You’ve seen the headlines. There’s an opioid epidemic sweeping the nation. It’s coming for you. If not you, then definitely those other people. You know, the white working class men who are too ignorant to know what’s good for them. 

Doctors are pushing pain pills on them. As a result, they’re overdosing like crazy, addicted and unable to stop.

As a former journalist, I’m going to let you in on a secret. The media hypes things. Sometimes it even distorts the facts to make for better headlines.

I know. Hard to believe. 

So, let’s look at this supposed opioid epidemic with a sober eye. What’s going on out there in the real world?

First of all, take a look at this chart from the CDC:

As you can see, it shows you opioid deaths over the period between 1999 and 2017. The numbers represent deaths per 100,000 people. Another way of putting it is if there are five deaths, that’s 0.005% of the 100,000.

As of 2017, there were 327 million people in the United States. So the total number of deaths from prescription opioids such as oxycodone in 2017 was 16,350. 

To put this in perspective, 675,000 Americans died in the 1918 flu epidemic. In other words, more than 40 times the number of those who died during the worst recorded year of this supposed “epidemic.”

But wait, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. Because they don’t reveal how many of the people who died had been prescribed the opioids. They could’ve stolen them from a relative or bought them on the street. In fact, this kind of thing happens a lot. 

As you can see, the black line does show something that looks like a major upswing. fentanyl. Now, they don’t provide a breakdown of how many deaths were from prescriptions and which were from street drugs. But we do know the majority were taken by people who were also on other street drugs such as heroin or cocaine. They were also between the ages of 15 and 35. In other words, not the profile of a typical chronic pain patient.

We also know fentanyl is a dangerous drug that has recently been flooding the illegal street market. It may well reach epidemic proportions—we don’t know yet. But in any case it’s got nothing to do with the pain pills we keep hearing about.

Okay, you say. But what about the fact that opioids are addictive? Even if they don’t kill you, you shouldn’t take an addictive drug. Right?

Well, maybe. I personally was on morphine for over a year after my accident and I had no trouble getting off it once the pain was down. And like most others who take opioids for severe pain, I never got high or euphoric from it. Just the opposite. It allowed me to function. 

But let’s say it is addictive for some. Here are some other things that are addictive:

  • Smoking (480,000 US deaths per year)
  • Alcohol (88,000 US deaths per year)
  • Sugar (which can cause diabetes, obesity and other health problems)
  • Gambling 
  • Illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin, crystal meth, and of course fentanyl 
  • Gaming
  • Crossword puzzles (*raises hand*)
  • TV
  • Sex
  • Food

How concerned are you about these addictions? 

Fine, you say. But any deaths are bad, and they are going up.

Well, yes. But not because opioids are being controlled. Just the opposite, in fact.

The total number of opioids prescribed has declined every year since 2012. The trend accelerated in 2016, after the CDC released guidelines suggesting opioid usage be reduced for pain patients.

Yet as the chart clearly shows, the death toll rose during that time period. 

But what’s the harm in getting people to reduce their dependence on pain meds? 

Plenty. 

A grad student at Brandeis collected fieldwork in 2018-19 on pain patients who were swept up in the nationwide crackdown on opioids. Many had been working, socializing and otherwise living a full life until they were forced to lower their dosage or stop taking opiods altogether.

Mary, for example, had been the manager of a national grocery chain but had to stop working after her new doctor refused to prescribe the opioids she’d been taking. Another pain sufferer, Madeleine, had her dosage reduced. She also had to leave her job, and now spends her days in bed.

In fact, the CDC now says it never intended for pain patients on a stable dose to have their opioids cut down at all. 

“Some individuals need higher levels. People have physical dependence, whether or not they have addiction. So it’s actually very unsafe,” said Sharon Tsay, a medical officer with the CDC’s division of unintentional injury prevention. 

Then, there are the suicides. We don’t have hard numbers on this, but it looks like they’re on the rise among pain patients. Dr. Thomas Kline has been collecting stories about these suicides. 

The FDA has expressed concern that suicide can be the result when opioids are withdrawn, especially if it’s not done properly. And according to Dr, Kline, many of these suicides are recorded as overdoses. So that could also help account for the rising death toll. 

Not a good outcome.

So yes, it can be harmful to reduce opioids. People may lose their jobs and quality of life, or commit suicide. 

And why is this happening if the “opioid epidemic,” if it exists, is about street drugs, not prescriptions? 

The answer: it shouldn’t be. 

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