A lot of attention fell last week on the news that Oklahoma successfully struck back against some of the drug manufacturers that fueled that state’s opioid addiction epidemic. The results have serious implications for North Carolina communities that are helping people struggling with addictions.
Johnson & Johnson, one-time purveyor of cotton swabs and baby shampoo, was fined $572 million for its participation in manufacturing and distributing billions of pills that exacerbated addictions in Oklahoma. Oklahoma also reached a $270 million settlement with OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma and an $85 million settlement with Israeli-owned Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.
Many of us will feel a sense of justice as we read about these outcomes — and see them as signs of hope for the lawsuits filed against opioid distributors by state and local governments, including Forsyth, Surry, Stokes, Wilkes, Yadkin and Davie counties. It’s good to see someone, even a faceless conglomerate, held accountable for all the pain our friends and neighbors have suffered.
But the only real success will come as the scourge of opioid addiction becomes a thing of the past and its victims recover to take their rightful places in society again.
There were 97 opioid-related overdose deaths in the 15-county region of the Triad and Northwest North Carolina in the first quarter of 2018, according to officials with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Twenty-two of those deaths occured in Forsyth County, 18 were in Guilford, 14 each in Davidson and Randolph, eight in Alamance, seven in Rockingham, five in Wilkes, four in Surry, three in Yadkin and one each in Davie and Stokes, the Journal reported.
From 2006 to 2012, more than 2.5 billion opioid pills were distributed in North Carolina, according to recently released government data made available by the Washington Post.
Almost 43 million of those came to Forsyth County.
That’s only a tiny fraction of the billions and billions of pills that went through pharmacies and other dispensaries around the country. Drug manufacturers should have responded to the problem more responsibly, but it’s hard to turn off the spigot when profits are high.
The circumstances that lead to addiction to prescription painkillers are as varied as the individuals who become addicted. Some become addicted to painkillers following injuries or operations. As their prescriptions expire, they may shop around for doctors who will renew them or turn to cheaper street drugs like heroin to manage their pain.
Others fall into taking pain killers as the result of life difficulties that include unemployment, depression and high levels of stress.
It can be hard to explain addiction to those who haven’t experienced it, but it’s all too substantial for those who have been there. Few intend to become addicted, but all hunger for relief from their pain.
There is some good news, relatively speaking: Unintentional opioid-related overdose deaths fell by 5% in 2018, compared to a 34% increase in 2017, NCDHHS reported last week.
In 2017, the state instituted an opioid action plan that has led to a 24 percent decrease in opioid dispensing and a 14 percent increase in prescriptions for drugs used to treat addiction. Emergency department visit for opioid overdoses dropped 10 percent between 2017 and 2018. North Carolina has received more than $54 million in federal funding to provide treatment for over 12,000 individuals fighting substance abuse.
We can all contribute, when we become aware of a loved one’s problems, by encouraging them to take the proper steps and supporting them through their efforts. We can contribute by being aware of the problem’s intricacies and informing others. There’s a role for everyone to play, from doctors, pharmacists and counselors to state legislators. Working together, we can beat the scourge.