Celebrities, Prescription Drugs, And The Rise In Overdose Deaths

The headlines read more and more often lately like the obituary section in the newspaper. Another celebrity has died, and it is due to a drug overdose. But not all of these overdose deaths are due to drugs like cocaine or heroin. Over three times as many are directly due to prescription medications and/or even alcohol.

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The Names

Some names we know: Prince. Michael Jackson. Whitney Houston. Heath Ledger. Amy Winehouse. Anna Nicole Smith. John Belushi. Elvis Presley.

Some other names we may or may not know: Heroin. Cocaine. Oxycodone. Xanax. Hydrocodone. Methamphetamine. Diazepam. Phenobarbital. Codeine. Barbiturates. Benzodiazepines. Alcohol.

We know the people, we have heard their stories, at least the stories released in the news and on social media. Celebrities, singers, performers — popular, familiar to fans in their genre. It’s sad and tragic when we hear about their deaths. Then we hear that the deaths were related to drugs and it makes the tragedy seem worse somehow because we know it was avoidable.

This tiny list doesn’t even touch on the regular Joes in America, the millions of non-celebrity, non-famous people who are addicted to painkillers and prescription drugs who die every year from an overdose of these substances. Sometimes these deaths are from suicide, sometimes they are accidental, sometimes they’re from illicit drugs, sometimes from prescriptions, sometimes even from alcohol.

But all are avoidable.

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According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, 21.5 million Americans age 12 or older had a substance use disorder in 2014. That fact, in itself, is staggering. And of those 21.5 million, “1.9 million had a substance use disorder involving prescription pain relievers and 586,000 had a substance use disorder involving heroin.” That is over three times as many issues with prescribed drugs than with the illicit drug heroin which everybody considers to be very harmful.

Additionally, the overdose death rate rose nearly four times the number from 1999 to 2008, and in 2014, according to JAMA, there were nearly 20,000 overdose deaths from prescription opioids. Sales of prescription pain relievers rose four times the number from 1999 to 2010; and the substance use disorder treatment admission rate (at least they were trying to get help) rose six times the number from 1999 to 2009.

The reason all of these numbers went up so drastically and continue to rise? The number of prescriptions written for drugs in the opioid family (prescription painkillers) among adolescents and young adults nearly doubled from 1994 to 2007, and have continued to rise.

The Perfect Storm

A “perfect storm” is defined as a rare combination of events or circumstances that converge to create an unusually bad situation. In the case of these celebrities, in pretty much every single case, their perfect storm consisted of the same three attributes: access to doctors that would prescribe them anything; money to be able to afford it; yes-men surrounding them who didn’t have the courage to tell them they shouldn’t do it, and a lot of alone time, or a combination of the last two.

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CNBC reported on a survey that was released by the Kaiser Family Foundation that found “44 percent of Americans said they personally know someone who has been addicted to prescription painkillers.” Most Americans believe the government is not doing enough to provide health care resources for the people who are addicted to prescription painkillers (66 percent), or heroin (62 percent).

Batten Down

This has become such an epidemic, the Obama administration is funneling $1 billion of additional funding to combat opioid addiction in America. Unfortunately, that won’t fix this problem, which is multi-fold. Even $1 billion is still like putting a bandage on a severed artery. People will still have addictive behaviors. Celebrities will still have gobs of money and the ability to surround themselves with people who won’t say no.

It could be said this epidemic began innocently enough. In an editorial written in the Journal of American Medical Association, addiction medicine specialist Yngvild Olsen said doctors had been pressured for decades to “manage patients’ pain,” USA Today reported, and even though there was “never much evidence that opiates ease chronic pain”, there was “misleading marketing of prescription opioids by manufacturers, who minimized the risks of misuse and addiction.”

Now, there are millions of Americans addicted to and reliant upon addictive, prescription opioid painkillers. Due to what they perceive as an epidemic, the CDC in March set its “first ever guidelines for dispensing the morphine-like, addictive drugs, such as Vicodin and OxyContin.” It is the duty of everybody involved to ask questions and set parameters, including patients and doctors — and celebrities — to address this issue and hopefully lessen the number of people addicted to these drugs, and the number of deaths that occur from their over-consumption.

[Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Image]