Last year, 44,000 people died of drug overdoses. and 52 percent of them were related to prescription drugs. More than 2 million Americans are dependent on opioid pain killers and, every day, 44 Americans die from an overdose of these drugs.
When the cost of these pain killers becomes too great, addicts will turn to the use of low-cost heroin. In 2007, there were 373,000 heroin addicts in the United States, and 2,400 deaths resulted from a heroin overdose. By 2014, those numbers ballooned to 914,000 addicts and 10,500 overdose deaths. The overdose death rate of people ages 25 to 34 was five times higher in 2014 than it was in 1999.
As you read these statistics, you are probably stunned, horrified, saddened, and angry. But you'll put the newspaper down and go about dealing with the challenges of your life. As bad as these facts are, they don't affect you — it's not personal.
On Jan. 16 of this year, it became personal for me and for hundreds of Philadelphians when John Decker died. John was an incredible young man who had it it all. If you read his obituary, one thing is clear: If John Decker, a gifted athlete and financial analyst, could fall victim to opioid pain-killer addiction, then any young person could.
Most importantly, the three people to whom John's death was the most personal — his wonderful mom and dad, Tad and Candy, and his loving sister Samantha — have decided to do something about this problem.
Tad asked me to speak at John's memorial service. I decided to try to find out what has caused this explosion of addiction, what our government is doing to stop it, and the things that we should be doing but we're not. I found that, in the early '90s, opioid pain killers were prescribed only for long-term use by terminally ill patients suffering from diseases like cancer. They were prescribed on a short-term basis only for people recovering from surgery.
In the mid-'90s, all this changed as the result of an aggressive marketing campaign by pharmaceutical companies. Doctors responded by prescribing opioid pain killers for long-term, chronic, nonmalignant medical conditions like lower back pain. It often led to ridiculous treatment. A friend of mine told me that, after his hernia operation, his doctor wrote a prescription for 30 Percocet pills. Ridiculous! He didn't need them, and took only Motrin.
So what has our government done to slow the epidemic down? Virtually nothing. In fact, you can make a case that it has responded to special interests and failed to take deterrent action. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration unbelievably authorized the use of OxyContin for 11- to 16-year-olds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has delayed issuing a directive aimed at curbing the over-prescription of opioid pain killers. Six U.S. senators wrote the CDC and said "we are troubled by reports that the delay occurred after opposition from companies that have a significant financial stake in the role of opioid pain killers."
However, despite this gloomy picture, I believe there is a clear path we can take that will dramatically reduce the use of opioid pain killers and low-cost heroin. The only question is, will our leaders will have the courage to stand up to these special interests and go down that path?
First, Congress should pressure the FDA to reverse its directive allowing OxyContin to be prescribed to 11- to 16-year-olds. Second, it should continue to pressure the CDC to issue those guidelines.
Third, Congress should immediately pass the comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, whose main sponsor is Sen Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.). The act would strengthen prescription-drug monitoring programs that exist in most states, and make those programs interoperable across state lines and available to all doctors and pharmacies.
These monitoring programs are essential to curbing over-prescription. They can tell the authorities when an individual goes to three different doctors in the same week for the same drug, or when a single doctor issues far too many unnecessary prescriptions for pain killers. The act would also provide additional funding to create drug courts, which have had some success in getting addicts into treatment. Treatment isn't always successful, but it can be, and today, only one in 10 addicts are in treatment programs. The act would also provide additional funding for treatment programs. It also provides funding to make Naloxone, a powerful antidote to overdosing, available to first responders.
I believe we can curb this epidemic if we all make it personal. We need to pressure Congress, our state legislatures, and our government agencies to act. We should demand that medical schools put the dangers of over-prescription into their curriculum for young doctors to understand the role that their profession has played in aiding this explosion. We should demand that the American Medical Association and local prosecutors crack down on "dirty docs" who overprescribe for their own financial gain.
It has to be personal for all of us to succeed. Our goal is simple: No more John Deckers, no more kids anywhere.
Ed Rendell is a former governor of Pennsylvania and a former mayor of Philadelphia. firstname.lastname@example.org