We can’t afford to lose more people to addiction

Various prescription drugs on an automated assembly line at Medco Health Solutions in Willingboro, N.J.
Various prescription drugs on an automated assembly line at Medco Health Solutions in Willingboro, N.J. The Associated Press

Every year, tens of thousands of Americans die of overdoses of prescription opioid painkillers. Every year, tens of thousands more overdose and live, many of them right here in Sacramento County.

Also, every year, thousands of Americans die of a heroin overdose. The number jumps every year. And every year, a new study comes out showing the connection between the abuse of prescription opioids and heroin.

None of this is a secret. But you wouldn’t know that watching the federal government in action.

First, the U.S. Food and Drug Association approved the use of OxyContin, the extended time-release version of the generic opioid oxycodone, for kids ages 11 to 16 with severe, long-term pain.

Three days later, the Obama administration launched its new strategy to combat the heroin epidemic. It included a measly $5 million in grants to rein in trafficking, distribution and abuse.

How disappointing. We wonder whether FDA and administration officials truly grasp the seriousness of this intertwined epidemic of opioid and heroin addiction. Because it’s bad. Really bad.

Drug overdoses claim more lives each year than homicide or car crashes. And opioids kill twice as many people as heroin.

Communities in the Northeast and Midwest have been particularly ravaged. Just last spring, the largest HIV outbreak in years took hold of a small Indiana town because of drug addiction. Residents hooked on the prescription painkiller Opana were sharing needles.

In California, hospitals treated more than 11,500 patients suffering from opioid or heroin overdoses in 2013, according to a summary of state data by The Bee’s Phillip Reese. That amounts to about one overdose every 45 minutes.

Moreover, about 1,190 babies were born addicted to drugs here last year. That’s about one addicted newborn for every 400 births and an increase of more than 50 percent from a decade ago, Reese reported.

Nationally, heroin overdoses almost quadrupled between 2002 and 2013. Most public health officials agree it’s because people are switching from pricey prescription opioids to cheaper bags of heroin.

That doesn’t mean the overprescribing of opioids – like the overprescribing of many drugs these days – isn’t ultimately to blame.

According one study, 4 out of 5 new heroin users abused prescription painkillers first. Of those who take the pills as directed, 1 in 4 first-time users will progress to longer-term prescriptions, according to the Mayo Clinic. Meanwhile, doctors wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers in 2012, enough for every American adult to have one bottle of pills.

That makes the FDA’s decision to allow OxyContin to be prescribed to kids so troubling. No one wants to see children in pain, particularly those suffering from cancer or other chronic illnesses. And yet we worry about normalizing the idea of children taking opioids and, if that happens, making them more susceptible to substance abuse as adults.

The FDA says its intent was not to expand the use of OxyContin in children, but to come up with better guidelines for the prescribing of oxycodone that was already taking place.

Still, we urge doctors to use caution and not to give in to the all-too-familiar pattern of overprescribing. We can’t afford to lose yet more young Americans to drug addiction.