Every year, Ohio’s drug crisis grows. Between 2007 and 2016, drug overdoses killed more Ohioans than any other accidental cause.
The main reason for this awful, fatal health crisis is opioids. Opioids are involved in the vast majority of drug deaths in Ohio. In 2016, a total of 4,050 Ohioans died of drug overdoses. Of those, 3,495 — 86.3 percent — died from opioid overdoses.
Heroin is the most notorious opioid. Its bad reputation is well deserved. However, the main culprits for the opioid addiction boom are legal drugs prescribed every day in Ohio by the thousands.
Prescription painkillers are often the first opioid drug used by Ohioans who struggle with opioid addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, approximately three in four U.S. heroin users reported misusing prescription opioids prior to their heroin use.
Prescription opioids are marketed as painkillers under familiar brand names such as Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet by companies such as Merck, Perdue, and Johnson & Johnson. They’re everywhere — which wasn’t normal until the 1990s.
In the ’90s, pharmaceutical companies worked aggressively to change the way chronic and acute pain is treated in the United States. Pharma companies wanted doctors to prescribe more opioids. They successfully convinced doctors to prescribe large quantities of opioids using a flawed study.
Ohio is no exception to the trend. On average, between 2011 and 2013, Ohio pharmacists gave patients 784 million doses of prescription opioids every year. That’s enough to give every Ohioan 67 doses.
Opioid painkillers are not as safe as the pharmaceutical industry claimed in the ’90s. They are just as addictive as their street drug counterparts, so they can ensnare people who would have never considered buying drugs on the black market. Some medical patients develop opioid dependence after taking the drugs during the course of treatment.
Ohio resident Traci Andrus was prescribed opioids after a medical procedure. The former social worker for the city of Chillicothe developed an addiction to her medication while recuperating from the procedure.
When she started using, Andrus says, “I had a home. I had a brand-new car. I had a life.”
She lost the first two as she slipped further into addiction. Eventually, she started using heroin.
In 2016, a total of 3,495 Ohioans died from opioid overdoses.
Street opioids such as heroin are easier and cheaper to buy than prescription opioids. Opioid painkillers have to be prescribed by doctors and distributed by pharmacists. When someone starts asking for large quantities of pills, caregivers get suspicious and eventually cut them off.
Even if that doesn’t happen, a prescription opioid habit becomes too expensive for most people struggling with addiction to maintain. Heroin is less expensive, and because it is illegal, sales and usage aren’t monitored.
According to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, there is a direct connection between the opioid epidemic and the prescription painkiller boom. In 2017, his office filed a lawsuit against five pharmaceutical companies. The suit accused the companies of lying to doctors and patients to sell more pills and ignoring or changing prescription opioid safety standards.
“[The companies] knew all of it was wrong and they did it anyway, unleashing a health care crisis that has unfurled far-reaching financial, social and deadly consequences for the people and families of the state of Ohio,” DeWine said. The pharmaceutical companies want the lawsuit dismissed. They argue that they aren’t directly responsible for the crisis.
What caused the crisis is a question for history. If Ohio wins the lawsuit, the state may use the settlement to pay for education and treatment programs. Only treatment for everyone who developed an addiction can repair the damage that prescription opioids have done to the people of Ohio.