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Watts: Addressing the Opioid Crisis

When Eric suffered a painful hockey injury during high school, the doctor prescribed painkillers. This started a life-long addiction that led to his death last year, just five months after marrying his long-time girl-friend.

Seven Days recently reported on the one hundred Vermonters who died from opioid overdoses last year. Eric was one of them. His wife Shannon is quoted as saying “I honestly thought that wasn’t going to happen to him. I knew it was a battle, but he wanted more out of life than that. He died on a Thursday. He was supposed to go to camp on Friday to help his father with some stuff.”

The opioid epidemic is ravaging our communities. Drug overdose is now a leading cause of death nationally – with more than fifty thousand dying last year alone – and many more thousands addicted. An estimated three out of four addictions started with prescription pills issued from a doctor’s office.

When the pills run out, people turn to cheaper alternatives - drugs that ravage the body, destroy relationships and can lead to overdose and death - like heroin.

Last year, more than two hundred million prescriptions were handed out in the US, more than enough to provide a bottle of pills to every man, woman and child in this country.

Some say aggressive marketing of highly addictive painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin by the drug companies is at the core of the problem.

So this month, a new law in Vermont requires doctors to prescribe fewer painkillers. And, Vermont’s Attorney General has joined a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical industry, an action which may uncover what they knew about the addictive properties of their drugs and what their role was in promoting the over-prescription of opiates that has led to this crisis, including so-called pill factories – where opiates were reportedly handed out like candy.

Similar lawsuits against the tobacco industry produced clear evidence of the targeting of kids and the industry’s long awareness of the addictive qualities of nicotine – despite their public denials. Those lawsuits led to the payout of billions of dollars to states, which, in turn, have helped sharply reduce tobacco use.

Drug companies helped create this addiction crisis and I for one believe they should pay the cost of addressing it.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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