OUR OPINION: When child-resistant caps aren’t enough“propelled by an increase in prescription narcotic overdoses, drug deaths now outnumber traffic fatalities in the United States,” Los Angeles Times reports. Tom Dennis discusses why and what can be done about it.
By: Tom Dennis, Grand Forks Herald
As cars grew in popularity in the 20th century, extensive safety features such as seat belts and air bags were introduced.
As a result, while more drivers are steering more cars down more-crowded roads than ever, car accident deaths have declined.
But a different scenario is unfolding in the world of prescription painkillers, another high-tech tool of modern life. And that’s one reason why, “propelled by an increase in prescription narcotic overdoses, drug deaths now outnumber traffic fatalities in the United States,” as the Los Angeles Times has reported.
The different scenario is this:
“For decades, prescriptions for narcotic painkillers were limited largely to cancer patients and others with terminal illnesses,” the Times reported last month.
“The prevailing view was that the risk of addiction outweighed any benefit for the great majority of patients whose conditions were not life-threatening.”
Then starting in the late 1980s, “influential physicians argued in medical journals that it was inhumane to ignore suffering in non-cancer patients.” Drug companies followed suit by making and marketing narcotic painkillers for moderate pain; and as a result, “the use of painkillers quadrupled between 1999 and 2010,” the Times reports.
Today, “narcotic painkillers are among the most popular prescription drugs in the U.S.,” and hydrocodone has become “the most commonly prescribed drug in the U.S., eclipsing the leading antibiotics and cholesterol medications.”
But now, there’s a problem: the drugs’ powerful addictiveness and appeal, the same issues that had kept them from being widely prescribed in the first place.
As a CNNMoney report said about these medications, “their chemical composition is such that the U.S. is just a few carbon molecules from being a nation of heroin addicts.” No wonder that ever since the drugs started to be more widely prescribed, “addiction to painkillers has become a staple of news headlines,” CNNMoney continued.
And that includes recent headlines out of Little Falls, Minn., where two teens — apparently in search of prescription drugs — broke into a man’s home and then were shot and killed by the owner.
Now, here’s the key, the Los Angeles Times noted in its recent series:
“Initial attempts to reverse the trend in drug deaths — such as state-run prescription drug-monitoring programs aimed at thwarting ‘doctor-shopping’ addicts — don’t appear to be having much effect, experts say.
“‘What’s really scary is we don’t know a lot about how to reduce prescription deaths,’ said Amy S.B. Bohnert, a researcher at the University of Michigan Medical School who is studying ways to lower the risk of prescription drugs.
“‘It’s a wonderful medical advancement that we can treat pain,’ Bohnert said. ‘But we haven’t figured out the safety belt yet.’”
So, picture America’s high-speed highway system, which lets motorists zip between cities at 75 mph. But now, picture all of those motorists in vehicles that lack basic safety features such as seat belts.
That’s the image to keep in mind when thinking about the tremendous benefits but very real risks and costs of prescription narcotics. It communicates why patients should safeguard their medications with extreme care. It suggests to parents and schools just how forcefully they should tell students about the dangers of abusing prescription drugs.
And it gets across the next step for society, which is to dramatically strengthen the protective measures in place. After all, modern society needs effective medications, just like it needs high-speed travel. But it needs “seat belts,” too — and in both of those fields, not just one.
— Tom Dennis for the Herald