There were 907 fatal overdoses in Philadelphia last year. Opioids — heroin and prescription painkillers — were implicated in 729 of them.
Many of those killed by heroin began their addictions with prescription opioids, so the city is launching a TV and social media campaign labeling legal painkillers as "heroin in pill form." The aim of the $182,000 campaign, announced by the Health Department Monday at City Hall, is to save lives.
"Tens of thousands of people in the city are using prescription painkillers and many are at risk of becoming addicted," said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley at an afternoon news conference. "This campaign is to warn them of the dangers of those drugs."
A 90-second spot — which debuted on YouTube on Monday — features several recovering addicts, as well as people who lost family members to addiction.
"The best way to get this across was to get real people to tell their own stories," Farley said.
Ryan Monaghan was 18 when he rolled his Jeep, an accident that left him with persistent back pain. A doctor prescribed a 30-day supply of Oxycontin, but Monaghan didn't stop when that supply ran out.
"Ryan was a good kid, but it just escalated," said his mother, Wendy, a real estate agent in Wayne. "Soon, he became like a pharmacist. He could tell you anything about pain medications."
Nine years later, after several stints in rehab, Ryan died of a heroin overdose.
"I'm not blaming the doctor," said Wendy Monaghan, who attended the news conference. "But if I could go back in time ... I would have cautioned against it. If he hadn't become addicted to the pills, he would not have become addicted to heroin.
"I thought the doctor knew best."
Roland Lamb, the deputy commissioner of Philadelphia's Department of Behavioral Health, said he hoped the graphic campaign would reach people "before they become a statistic."
Lamb said an estimated 12 million people across the nation are misusing prescription narcotics.
"And everyone who is using a pain medicine is at risk," Lamb said.
Prescription opioids have made life bearable for people suffering extreme pain, many of whom wouldn't agree their medicine is the same as heroin.
Mayor Kenney, however, said that given the "stark numbers" of deaths, his administration would rather "take the blowback" generated by the ad campaign "than see more people die."
Many doctors, he said, have not come to grips with how bad the opioid crisis has become and continue to overprescribe painkillers.