Over the past 20 years, accidental drug overdose has become the leading cause of injury and death in the United States. Opioids, which include prescription painkillers like OxyContin as well as heroin, are responsible for a whopping three quarters of overdose deaths. This public health crisis has prompted recent debate and discussion about how to prevent opioid addiction and how best to help those already caught in the throes of this disease.This week, two powerful discussion forums addressed the opioid epidemic, with key players in the healthcare field and government weighing in—including our own Chief Medical Officer, Andrew Kolodny, M.D. The discussions included the underlying problem of overprescribing addictive painkillers, conflict between the CDC’s recommendations and the FDA’s action, and what can be done to reduce drug abuse in the U.S.
The Prescription Drug Abuse: Evidence Informing Action symposium was a two-day event spanning May 13-14 presented by The Clinton Health Matters Initiative and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The program, co-hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness and the Center for Injury Research and Policy, included a Town Hall segment open to the public. The Town Hall event featured a keynote address by President Bill Clinton and a panel of five experts. This event was followed by private working sessions with experts from the nation’s leading healthcare organizations, including Dr. Kolodny.
The focus groups discussed prevention and intervention methods, effective overdose and addiction treatment approaches, as well as the role of state and federal policy in combatting prescription drug abuse. Finally, participants strategized future steps to ensure that their efforts are successfully implemented in healthcare policy and practice.
The next day, on May 14, the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control held a hearing, America’s Addiction to Opioids: Heroin and Prescription Drug Abuse. The hearing was led by Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Co-Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and featured five witnesses. Dr. Kolodny testified along with Michael Botticelli, acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy; Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse; Dr. H. Westley Clark, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; and Joseph Rannazzisi, deputy assistant administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The goal of the hearing was to examine the increase of heroin use in the U.S, and, in particular, to identify the role prescription drug abuse plays in the trend. Witnesses also highlighted how the federal government can help reduce opioid abuse. Dr. Kolodny noted that “with only 5% of the world’s population, we now consume 84% of the world’s OxyContin.” This is, in large part, due to vast over-prescription of these dangerous drugs. “We [doctors] were taught that we shouldn’t worry about addiction,” he explained, “and not enough is being done to correct the record.” More cautious prescribing practices by health care professionals and increased access to effective treatment, Dr. Kolodny pointed out, are the necessary next steps in addressing our country’s problem.
We are grateful to Dr. Kolodny and all the participants of this week’s events for raising awareness about this critical issue and paving the way for progress. To view Dr. Kolodny’s Senate testimony, please click here.