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Prevention must take center stage in strategies to rein in opiate epidemic

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Columbus Dispatch: It may take years to sort out the proportionate blame for the deadly opioid epidemic that infected the nation early in this century and marked Ohio as an epicenter.

But we cannot take too long to learn from past mistakes and put measures in place to keep from repeating this shameful history.

The newest data to shine a light on the crisis of addiction and overdose deaths is stark testimony to lapses at multiple points where questions could have been raised and the flow of drugs potentially stemmed.

Nationally, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration database tapped by the Washington Post has revealed that 76 billion opioid pills were distributed across the United States from 2006 to 2012.

In Ohio alone, the total number of opioid pills flowing through this state during that period was 3.4 billion, according to the DEA database.

This scourge of painkillers too often turned traitor on those they were intended to help, leading them from law-abiding lives to all-consuming drug dependency that supply sources were willing to feed.

Such easy access to these addictive prescription painkillers adds up to more than one million years of life lost in Ohio due to drug overdoses from 2009 through 2018, according to an analysis from a partnership of Ohio University and the University of Toledo.

The universities, working together as the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health, dug deeper into the 26,375 people who died in Ohio of overdoses in the decade ending last year to determine that the victims each lost an average of 39 years of life — accounting for half of their expected life spans.

Just as the number of pills flooding Ohio was excessive, there is no shortage of targets for our collective wrath and outrage.

Unscrupulous physicians who operated pill mills were rightly among the first targets of regulators seeking to halt abuses. Fittingly, some have been convicted for putting heartless greed above their patients’ well-being.

The nation’s drug manufacturers and major drug distributors, including Dublin-based Cardinal Health, are facing civil litigation in Cleveland, sued by almost 2,000 cities for ruinous outcomes of opiate use.

In attempting to deflect and defend its actions, Cardinal issued a statement noting the DEA itself responded to increasing opioid production by lifting quotas on manufacturers by 140 percent from 2006 to 2014.

Finger-pointing aside, the more critical need now is to make sure that all elements touching the drug supply chain, legal and illegal, are in sync as to their responsibilities for reducing and preventing drug overdoses.

Guidelines and restrictions for prescribing opioids have been implemented and overdose deaths have started to drop but they still cut short 4,002 lives last year in Ohio, decreasing by 1,153 from 2017.

Partnerships like the Ohio Opioid Education Alliance and its campaign, “Don’t live in Denial, Ohio,” are raising awareness with parents and others on preventing opioid addiction.

As the courts sort out who should pay what for their role in creating the opioid addiction epidemic, all of us must protect our families and loved ones.

Ask health care providers about alternatives to drugs for pain relief, safeguard prescription medications and be prepared to administer naloxone if someone you love shows signs of experiencing an overdose.

Even one preventable drug death is too many.