Drug overdoses killed 72,000 Americans last year, more than died in Vietnam (58,220) or from guns (38,658 in 2016) or car crashes (40,100 in 2017). And the crisis is far worse in Florida than the nation, as fatal overdoses spiked 47 percent from 2015 to 2016, more than double the national rate. Politicians and medical health professionals are taking note, and solving the crisis will involve treating those who are addicted and prosecuting those who are responsible. It will also require a new, more mature approach to treating pain.
In a recent column for the Tampa Bay Times, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called these new numbers from the Centers for Disease Control "the highest drug death toll in a single year and the fastest single-year increase in that death toll in American history." At the request of President Donald Trump,Attorney General Sessions has pledged to sue the major drug makers and marketers he accuses of indiscriminate and misleading marketing that resulted in untold numbers of addicts. In May, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi blamed the largest manufacturers and distributors of opioids for creating a crisis that has killed more than 10,000 Floridians when she filed a lawsuit against them in Pasco County. And Hillsborough County has filed a lawsuit against drug makers and distributors, from Purdue Pharma to CVS and Walgreens, arguing they marketed opioids while being deceptive about the risks and benefits of long-term use. In 2016, Hillsborough led the state with 579 babies born addicted to drugs. The county was home to one of the nation's most notorious pill mills, First Medical Group, which operated on North Dale Mabry Highway through 2010. Pills were resold nationwide at up to $80 apiece.
These lawsuits are really about making drug companies pay for past bad behavior and providing money to address a drug crisis that has morphed. Pill mills and doctor shopping have been stemmed by a state prescription drug monitoring program and new laws that reduce bogus prescriptions. But many of those who were already addicted simply shifted from pills to even deadlier drugs — street heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be fatal even in miniscule amounts.
A three-pronged solution can help solve the crisis: Treatment for the addicted, punishment for the criminals and education for patients seeking pain relief and doctors trying to provide it. All three efforts need enough money to succeed.
Dr. Charles J. Lockwood, dean of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, recently told the Times editorial board the school now has a curriculum to teach students how to diagnose and treat pain without prescribing opioids. "Doctors thought they were undertreating pain," he said, but now they know that opioids are ineffective for chronic pain that is unrelated to cancer. Another practical facet of curbing the crisis is making widely available a medication called naloxone, which can save lives by rapidly reversing an opioid overdose, and training first-responders and others in its use.
The effort to cut drug deaths is one of those rare issues on which politicians of all stripes at all levels seem to agree on the essential causes and cures. They should stay focused to bring to justice those people and companies that profited from pretending to feel the pain of others, but it's even more essential to provide the education and the treatments that are known to work, so that people can beat their addictions, become productive citizens and leave the scourge of deadly drugs behind.