Throughout the opioid crisis, there has been no shortage of eye-popping revelations, from seeing the reach of the problem to the raw numbers to the costs to the forceful grip the addiction asserts on its victims.
Another attention-getting report came last week, when The Washington Post published a database of prescription opioid pill sales across the nation. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration numbers, covering 2006 to 2012, were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act case. The numbers for Cheshire County showed nearly 15 million pills were shipped to pharmacies here in that span — more than 2 million per year.
That amounts to about 27½ pills per person in the county per year. What’s even more shocking is that Cheshire County’s numbers were well under the national average of 36 pills per person per year. And if that doesn’t sound like a lot, consider that’s all people — including children and those not using any opioids via prescription.
It was certainly enough to kick-start a crisis that’s since added heroin, and now fentanyl, among the key ingredients of both addiction and death.
We all know the drug manufacturers as the bad guys. Even before the nation’s opioid crisis, their reputations were cemented. The alleged wrongs committed by pharmaceutical firms are legendary tales of corporate greed: fighting the advent of generic versions that could save consumers money; price-gouging the sick for their products, even when it means someone may die for lack of them; paying off Congress to keep laws that might lower prices from becoming reality; pressuring the FDA to fast-track new medications without the needed safety testing; bribing, cajoling and threatening doctors to push their products over those of their competitors; fast-talking through the adverse side effects in TV and radio ad disclaimers while touting treatments for conditions we all didn’t even know were bad.
Did we leave any out? Oh, yeah. They flat-out lied about the dangers of their opioids, including the addictiveness of opioid painkillers, even long after it was clear those lies were a big part of creating a national health crisis that’s killing nearly 200 Americans daily and ruining countless other lives.
While the new study surely seems to cement that last impression, it’s important to note the drug companies didn’t do this by themselves. Too many doctors were all too willing to play along; some actively taking advantage to prescribe unwarranted numbers of pills, others simply not questioning what was going on even when the burgeoning crisis was apparent.
Federal regulators also played a huge role in expanding the crisis, first by allowing opioid painkillers into the market without fully vetting their addictive nature, then by allowing major changes in how they were prescribed. In a “60 Minutes” report in February, a former drug firm executive explained that in 2001, the FDA, which had previously approved the drug Oxycontin only for short-term use, without fanfare tweaked the required wording on warning labels to allow its use long-term for chronic conditions. That, in the words of Ed Thompson, owner of PMRS, which manufactures drugs for major pharmaceutical firms, was “the root cause of this epidemic.”
“A drug’s label is the single most important document for that product. It determines whether somebody can make $10 million or a billion dollars,” he told “60 Minutes.”
There’s more blame to be spread around. The widespread failure of our mental health system to adequately diagnose and treat many patients who might have been kept from immersing themselves in opioids is one factor, as is the continued failure to properly address and fund recovery services. Some might blame lax enforcement of drugs — particularly newer, synthetic opioids — coming into the country from China and elsewhere.
And, of course, there is the personal responsibility of users, all of whom chose their path at some point.
In terms of addressing the crisis, a lot of hand-wringing from local, state and national politicians has led to billions of dollars being allocated in the past several years. But a focused solution remains to be found. It may be that the crisis takes as long to solve as it did to blossom.
Back to the local picture: While opioid deaths have leveled off in New Hampshire — dropping from 2017 to 2018 by about 3.5 percent — in Cheshire County they continue to climb. In a report published Friday, The Sentinel’s Paul Cuno-Booth reported that 32 people died of drug overdoses in Cheshire County in 2018, nearly double the 17 deaths in 2017.
Many people in this area are trying their best to turn that trend around. In the meantime, keep in mind these words from Jake White, a recovery coach at The Serenity Center in Keene:
“[The opioid crisis] doesn’t know any boundaries. It isn’t prejudiced. It’ll take anybody.”