In October 2017, the rock musician Tom Petty died at the age of 66. Given Mr. Petty’s history of heroin addiction back to at least the 1990s and the frequency with which overdoses seem to cause the death of celebrities, there was some early assumption that it may have caused his. This was confirmed by the coroner, (NY Times, January 19 2018); however, the cause was not heroin but rather prescription opioids (oxycodone plus 3 types of fentanyl), combined with two also-addictive anti-anxiety medicines known as benzodiazepines: “The coroner, Jonathan Lucas, said that Mr. Petty’s system showed traces of the drugs fentanyl, oxycodone, temazepam, alprazolam, citalopram, acetyl fentanyl and despropionyl fentanyl.” (The citalopram is an SSRI anti-depressant). According to a statement from his wife and daughter, he had many ailments including a fractured hip that caused him great pain.
Thus, Mr. Petty becomes another victim of the epidemic of prescription opioid-related deaths. His previous heroin addiction (chronic use of opiates or opioids leads to tolerance, requiring higher and higher doses for relief) and his stature as a rich and famous person (which seems to make it even easier to find doctors who will prescribe such drugs) may have increased his risk, but his death is one instance of a widespread American problem that has been the subject of academic articles, government reports, and opinion pieces from medical providers, patients, and the general range of pundits.
David Blumenthal and Shanoor Servai of the Commonwealth Foundation write in their report “To Combat the Opioid Epidemic, We Must Be Honest About All Its Causes” that “History offers only one other recent example of a large industrialized country where mortality rates rose over an extended period among working-age white adults: Russia in the decades before and after the Soviet Union’s collapse. The economic and social contexts have been eerily similar, and substance abuse has been a dominant factor in both countries: alcohol in Russia, opiates in the United States.” A major study by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton in 2015, “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century” (which I have previously cited, Rising white midlife mortality: what are the real causes and solutions?, November 14, 2015) posits opioid-related deaths as a major cause of the surprising increase in mortality rate among white Americans. Blumenthal and Servai note that “Based on weighted estimates, 92 million, or 37.8%, of American adults used prescription opioids the prior year (2014); 11.5 million, or 4.7%, misused them; and 1.9 million, or 0.8%, had a use disorder. The epidemic is spreading so rapidly that it’s likely the numbers are higher now.”
So it’s a very big problem, with many causes, and the solutions are not simple. Doctors play a big role, since they must prescribe the opioids (whether these are taken by the designated patient or illicitly redistributed). While well-known surgeon and author Atul Gawande, in an interview with Sarah Kliff on Vox.com, says “We started it”, I don’t think that is completely true. Certainly doctors have been vehicles for its perpetration but there are other forces at work. One is the movement that began in the 1990s to adequately address patients’ pain, which was seen as insufficient by many critics. In many institutions pain was labeled the “fifth vital sign”, and staff were instructed to ask about pain relief in every interaction. While this is important, especially for acute short-lived pain (such as post-operative or post-traumatic), the use of opiates for chronic pain skyrocketed. The obvious problem is, as cited above, the more you have taken them the more you need; tolerance to opiate and opioid effects often requires increasing doses. The “high” resulting from these drugs (whether intended or not) increases their potential for abuse.
Long-acting opiates and opioids (such as extended release morphine or oxycodone, methadone, and fentanyl patches) are preferred as they can control pain with less of a “high”, but they still lead to tolerance. While addiction is not an issue for people who are dying of their cancer, it is for people with chronic diseases such as sickle-cell and chronic pain syndromes, most commonly in the US back pain. Opiates and opioids have been shown to be poor choices for long-term treatment of chronic back pain, but taking them is often easier and cheaper for patients than complicated (and often expensive) modalities such as physical therapy, and it relieves the pain more quickly and completely until higher and higher doses are needed. So patients, as well as physicians, are part of the problem, and physicians are working to try to help people, while complicating the problem.
Real villains include those who have originated and perpetuated this crisis only to make money. This includes insurance companies, who often deny more expensive treatments such as extended physical therapy or drugs such as buprenorphine, essentially pushing doctors and patients into the use of opioids. They certainly include the pharmaceutical companies who have developed and heavily marketed these drugs, notably the Sackler family who owned Purdue and made and pushed Oxy-Contin®, as documented in the New Yorker article “The family that built an empire of pain” (October 30, 2017). In brief, they acquired the rights to long-acting morphine, but because this was losing its patent protection (and thus its profitability), they developed a long-acting form of oxycodone, which was patented and thus more profitable. Counting on the negative associations that the public and even physicians associated with morphine, they pushed Oxy-Contin, which was at least as addictive and dangerous, for an ever-expanding list of chronic conditions. Back pain, of course, was the target market, and it soon seemed as almost everyone had an indication for opioids. And we have since been paying the price with their deaths.
The flaws of capitalism that directly drove and continue to drive this epidemic through the pursuit of profit should be clear enough. The structural flaws that have and continue to ruin the lives of so many Americans (not to mention people in the rest of the world) may be less obvious but are no less real. The dramatic redistribution of wealth from the vast majority of us to the already-wealthiest, with the concomitant decrease in the quality of life for so many, proceeds apace. The 1%, maybe even the 5%, are doing great, although the biggest benefit (including from the new GOP tax “reform”) law goes to the 0.1% or less. The richest 1% now owns half the world’s wealth and the 8 richest men have as much as half the world’s population! Worldwide, it is those in the poorest countries that suffer most. In the US, it remains minorities. While the shocker in the Case and Deaton study was the fact that white mortality is increasing, the fact remains that minorities, especially African-Americans, still have far higher mortality rates.
If we wish to decrease this excess mortality, it certainly will be important to address the opioid crisis, by physicians becoming more reticent to prescribe long-term opioids for chronic conditions, patients to accept alternative treatments, and insurers being willing to pay for those treatments. It will also be important to address other chronic addictions, like alcohol (Blumenthal and Seervai observe that while “11.5 million, or 4.7%, misused them [opioids and opiates]; and 1.9 million, or 0.8%, had a use disorder…By comparison, there are 17.1 million heavy alcohol users among adults over 18.” Legal does not mean safer, whether we are talking alcohol abuse or “legitimized” (by prescription) opioid abuse. It most often reflects the relative power of the industries that financially benefit.
The core problem is in the unfair, unjustifiable, and oppressive structural inequities in our society. These are so deeply seated that we often assume they are inevitable, and that there is no other way. There is. We may not be able to eliminate inequality, but if we are to seriously address the epidemic of unnecessary deaths, we need to do more than treat the symptoms; we must grapple head-on with and change our society’s structure.