On Sunday, September 28, about 2,000 members of the medical community, people in recovery, family members of overdose victims, and other activists from across the country gathered in Washington, D.C., to demand a federal response to the opioid crisis during the second annual FED UP! Rally.
A staggering 175,000 deaths over the past 15 years are attributable to prescription painkillers and heroin, both in the opioid class of drugs. Prescription painkiller overdose fatalities alone have surged in the last decade: In 1999, there were 4,030 deaths caused by these drugs; by 2010, there were nearly 17,000. The Centers for Disease Control has declared the dramatic rise in opioid-related deaths the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history.
The FED UP! Rally sought to shine a spotlight on the need for a federal response by putting a human face on the epidemic. Hundreds of grieving parents, spouses, and friends carried signs with striking messages, like, “Stop Prescribing Our Loved Ones the Death Penalty,” and photos of loved ones lost to the disease of addiction. Speakers such as author Erin Daly and filmmaker Greg Williams spoke of their family and personal experiences with addiction. And physicians like Caleb Alexander, M.D., Co-Director of the Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Jane C. Ballantyne, M.D., President of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), and Andrew Kolodny, M.D., Director of PROP and Chief Medical Officer of Phoenix House, talked about root causes of the crisis: the overprescribing of opioids to treat common problems—like lower-back pain and chronic headaches—even though research shows these drugs are ineffective for such conditions and can quickly become addictive.
Speakers also addressed how this overprescribing came to be. In the 1990s, drug makers began marketing opioids as safe, effective treatment for pain with little risk of addiction. As a result, doctors and dentists began routinely prescribing opioids like OxyContin and Vicodin for chronic back conditions, sports injuries, and even wisdom tooth removal, despite the high potential for abuse. Two decades later, Americans consume 80% of the world’s oxycodone supply and 99% of the world’s hydrocodone. Thousands of adults and young people become addicted to opioids after taking their medication as instructed. And teens become addicted after taking pills they find in the medicine cabinet or getting them from friends. Tragically, people in all these categories often turn to heroin for a cheaper high when their prescriptions run out or become unaffordable.
As last week’s event shows, Americans are becoming “fed up” with what they see as a failing on the federal level to curb these prescribing practices and a trend of exacerbating the crisis as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to approve new, highly addictive opioid painkillers.
The Rally took place on the National Mall and was followed by a march to the White House to drive home the group’s message: The opioid addiction epidemic impacts the entire nation, and it is time for federal action to help prevent more deaths by curbing over-prescription and expanding access to treatment.
Some participants noted that state and local leaders have taken the reins and addressed the opioid crisis in their communities. The city of Chicago and two California counties have waged separate lawsuits against large pharmaceutical companies over their “aggressive marketing” of opioid painkillers, citing massive health care and community costs. Five New England governors have coordinated a joint effort to fight opioid addiction that has devastated their region. Additionally, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and a bipartisan group of senators just this month introduced legislation to combat addiction and improve access to care nationwide.
“Drug abuse is claiming lives and tearing families apart in Minnesota and across the country, and we can spare no effort to reverse this deadly trend,” Senator Klobuchar said. “If we’re going to be successful in the fight to prevent abuse, we need to take a comprehensive approach that’s focused on expanding the use of proven tools in the fight against addiction. This commonsense, bipartisan legislation includes my provision to strengthen prescription drug monitoring programs across the country and will help ensure that communities have the resources they need to combat this epidemic.”
We extend our thanks to the many people who made the Rally a success: the sponsors who made it happen, the participants who traveled to our nation’s capital to show their support, and everyone who followed along on social media. More work remains, but with continued advocacy efforts, we can shatter the silence surrounding opioid addiction and make strides toward ending the epidemic.