In 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