Philip Seymour Hoffman’s All Too Ordinary Death

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

Philip Seymour HoffmanIn 2006, Philip Seymour Hoffman told an interviewer he felt betrayed by a 60 Minutes program that focused on his addiction. His addiction was in the past, he said, “not a major part of the story at all.” He told The Observer, “There are other events that form you. So to single it out as the one would not only be inappropriate, but not true.”

Tragically, his addiction ended up being a major part of his story. It appears that after doing well for twenty years, he relapsed after taking prescription pain pills. In Philip Seymour Hoffman, we lost an uncommonly brilliant actor to a heroin overdose. Unfortunately, tragedies like this have become much too common.

On the day Hoffman died, over 100 other Americans died of a drug overdose, too. More Americans die from accidental drug overdoses than car crashes, about 40,000 people each year. The bulk of these deaths are caused by drugs called opioids, a category that includes prescription painkillers and heroin. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. is in the midst of a severe epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose deaths—a drug epidemic it calls the worst in United States history.

This is the epidemic that claimed Hoffman after so many years of sobriety and that is devastating communities across the country. A few weeks ago Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his entire State of the State speech to his state’s opioid crisis. He talked about the need to expand access to treatment for people suffering from addiction, pointing out that we’re not going to be able to arrest our way out of this crisis. He’s absolutely right.

He also said people shouldn’t think that, just because he devoted his speech to the crisis, Vermont’s crisis is more serious than it is other states. He’s absolutely right about that, too. Like Vermont, nearly every state in the country is struggling to address this epidemic. Last month alone, 22 Pennsylvanians died from opioid overdoses that may have involved fentanyl, a powerful prescription painkiller, and many counties across the country are reporting skyrocketing rates of opioid overdose deaths.

If we recognize, as Shumlin pointed out, that opioid addiction is a disease that has increased to epidemic levels, then the strategies for controlling this epidemic become clear. We need to do two things. We need to prevent people from getting this disease in the first place (mainly by getting doctors and dentists to prescribe painkillers more cautiously), and we need to see that people who already have the disease have access to effective treatment.

We need to do both. If we only curtail overprescribing of painkillers without also expanding access to effective treatment, we’ll continue to see people turning to heroin, and the opioid epidemic will continue unabated.

By Andrew Kolodny, M.D.
Chief Medical Officer
Phoenix House

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4 Comments

  • Jim

    We need to understand what happens to the body when people take these powerful drugs. They deplete vitamins, particularly folate and B12. Folate deficiency leads to damage to the gastro-intestinal tract which damages nutrient absorption and the individual becomes seriously malnourished.

    Folate and B12 deficiency are both associated with mental issues which combine to cause addiction and a downward spiral in physical and mental health.

    Philip Seymour Hoffman was 46 but he looked 10-20 years older. He was clearly seriously malnourished and his body just couldn’t cope with that last injection as it used up the last of his folate and b12.

    He may well have had genetic polymorphisms which cause problems with folate and B12 utilisation and absorption too which increased his risk of addiction and ill-health.

    Folate and B12 deficiency are now reaching epidemic proportions. Doctors still rely on a discredited serum B12 reference range to diagnose B12 deficiency and the serum B12 test itself is discredited as it is inaccurate leading to 40% misdiagnosis rate.

    Families of addicts need to help them help themselves by determining their methylation gene status and treating appropriately. It’s the only way to halt the downward spiral that leads to tragedies like Hoffman’s.


  • Theresa

    We agree with Dr. Kolodny that the first strategy for controlling the opioid epidemic is to get doctors and dentists to be more cautious in prescribing dangerous opioid painkillers. These painkillers are essentially synthetic heroin, and highly addictive. We also agree with Dr. Kolodny that those who become addicted should have access to effective treatment. Part of such effective treatment is addressing the high risk for deadly overdose that addicts have when they are released from rehab facilities. Our son died of an opiate overdose after leaving rehab. A $3.00 naloxone kit for overdose prevention could have saved his life. Imagine how we feel to lose our only son, who for years valiantly fought to be free from his opiate addiction, when a $3.00 naloxone kit could have saved him. We will not stop advocating for access to lifesaving naloxone until it is provided by every drug treatment program in the country and available over-the-counter in every pharmacy. For us, it’s personal.


  • Andrew Kolodny

    Theresa- Thank you for bringing up naloxone! When naloxone (also called Narcan) is injected or sprayed up the nose of someone who has overdosed, moments later they begin to start breathing again. As Theresa mentioned, it’s safe, effective and inexpensive. It needs to be made much more available to first responders, families and peers of people with addiction and people on high doses of pain medication, addiction treatment providers, college dorm rooms and many other settings.

    In counties and cities where naloxone has been made available, there are reports of hundreds of overdose reversals. Naloxone is saving lives! Unfortunately, overdose death rates are still rising in some of the same counties that have done a fantastic job of expanding access to naloxone. For example, overdose deaths have risen again in Wilkes County, North Carolina- home of Project Lazarus. So clearly, we need much more than naloxone to get ourselves out of this mess- but a rapid expansion of naloxone access in the midst of an opioid addiction epidemic is a no-brainer- this needs to be urgently accomplished.



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