Opioid addiction continues to control our state, county

Published 8:17 am Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Our society is in the grip of a serious opioid problem. Tennessee has the nation’s second highest opioid prescription rate per capita and has a 250 percent increase in opioid-related overdose deaths from 2001 to 2010.

Here, in Tennessee, we are facing an epidemic. There are more opioid prescriptions than there are people in this state. In 2015, there were 1,451 opioid-related deaths in Tennessee, of which 15 were in Carter County.

This is the highest annual number of overdose deaths recorded in state history and brings the five-year total for Tennessee to 6,036 lives lost. The figure is the equivalent of every person on 40 mid-size jetliners dying.

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In 2015, the overdose rate was 22 per 100,000 people. This compares with a rate of 14.7 per 100,000 people who died in motor vehicle accidents, as 970 Tennesseans died last year on the state’s roadways.

The number of Tennessee babies born with an addiction due to drug use by the mother — called neonatal abstinence syndrome — reached 1,039 cases in 2015, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

Monday, a Tennessee Legislative Task Force visited East Tennessee State University to learn about local efforts to address the addiction crisis. Speakers included health professionals as well as educators. When it comes to the current opioid epidemic, people are concerned and are looking for answers.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration points out that “as people use opioids repeatedly, their tolerance increases and they may not be able to maintain the source for the drugs. This can cause them to turn to the black market for these drugs and even switch from prescription drugs to cheaper and more risky substitutes like heroin.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that, since 1999, deaths from prescription opioids — drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone — have quadrupled.

This is a disease every one of us is vulnerable to, not a moral failing. There are many people battling substance use disorders without seeking professional help, and many criminals willing to sell extremely dangerous pills, counterfeit pills, and gray and illegal substances.

What can be done to stop these chilling numbers?

While there is no simple answer, openly and honestly discussing opioid addiction in a setting such as Monday’s meeting at ETSU will help. Pretending the problem doesn’t exist, or will go away on its own, certainly isn’t the answer. Continuing the conversation and having people recognize the dangers of addiction before ever touching the stuff is the best way to stem the tide before it gets worse.

You’ve probably read that 80 percent of heroin users started with prescription medications — and you may have seen billboards that compare giving pain medication to children to giving them heroin. You have probably also heard and seen media stories of people with addiction who blame their problem on medical use.

But the simple reality is this: According to the large, annually repeated and representative National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 75 percent of all opioid misuse starts with people using medication that wasn’t prescribed for them — obtained from a friend, family member or dealer.

The vast majority of people who are prescribed opioids use them responsibly — recent research on roughly one million insurance claims for opioid prescriptions showed that just less than five percent of patients misused the drugs by getting prescriptions for them from multiple doctors.

Many people would prefer it if we could solve addiction problems by busting dealers and cracking down on doctors. The reality, however, is that as long as there is distress and despair, some people are going to seek chemical ways to feel better. Only when we can steer them towards healthier — or at least, less harmful — ways of self-medication, and only when we reach children before they develop this type of desperation, will we be able to reduce addiction and the problems that come with it.