By Marshall Lymburn | Opinion Editor

Doctors have been overprescribing painkillers for years, and Americans have paid the cost with their lives. (Courtesy of Huffington Post)

The United States is facing a national crisis when it comes to opioid addiction. Drug overdoses—two-thirds of them from opioids—are up nearly 22 percent from 2015, killing 64,000 Americans last year. The way we think about pain, both physical and emotional, needs to undergo a complete rewiring to solve this crisis.

Addiction is no simple matter, and the opiate epidemic’s inception and solution lies in the very fabric of the way Americans operate and think about the world. Additionally, America’s doctors and pharmaceutical companies need to rewrite their handbooks on the way to deal with pain. It is a task that will take decades and needs to start now.

In 1996, Purdue Pharma launched one such drug that has now become infamous. OxyContin was advertised as a non-addictive drug that provided 12 hours of pain relief. Purdue Pharma no doubt knew then, as we do now, the devastating addictiveness of Oxycontin. It is a drug that can be smoked, snorted, swallowed, or injected with a fraction of the painkilling time advertised. If that wasn’t enough, it was subsequently given like candy to everyone from kids getting their wisdom teeth out to grandparents getting a hip replacement.

In 2011, America had a generation of Oxycontin addicts on its hands, and Purdue Pharma, facing marked criticism, changed the formula to the drug. The new version could no longer be smoked, snorted, or injected, leading the tens of thousands of addicts under its spell to seek out similar, cheaper highs in the form of heroin. By 2013, the country was pondering the sudden resurgence of a drug that had been on decline for decades, but it was easy to see that America’s pharmaceutical companies had laid the ground for a generation of opioid addicts.

Let’s go back to Purdue Pharma’s two selling points for Oxycontin: “non-addictive” and “12 hours of pain relief.” Why were these two phrases so appealing to America’s doctors, pharmacists, and nurses at the time? The answer is less nefarious than you might think. Studies have shown for decades that pain slows the healing process after injury or surgery. Therefore, a patient being in less pain is better for the doctor, the hospital, the patient, and so on. However, this can end up sabotaging the patient, as it has become common practice for doctors to far overestimate the quantity of painkillers they dole out in an average prescription. 

When it comes to Purdue, their claim of merely trying to rid America of its short-term painkillers is about as believable as Phillip Morris’s spiel of tobacco as a non-carcinogen. This is why we need a two-way rewrite in the way America deals with its physical pain. Firstly, we need to address the way doctors deal with the idea of pain. The handing out of month-long prescriptions for minor pain or surgery had egregious implications to those simply trying to recover from basic surgeries. Pain medication should be given out based on the amount of pain—not to just fill a bottle.

Secondly, we need to hold America’s pharmaceutical companies responsible to some degree of restitution for the damage they’ve caused. Did not the same above-mentioned cigarette companies pay a price for their role in the deaths of millions of their customers? If you insist that this conflation is too extreme, reflect for a minute on how you would feel if you had falsely marketed a product that had turned hundreds of thousands of your customers into heroin addicts and cadavers. You would want to do everything in your power to make that right. If not this, then we need to scruntinize these companies to as full and public exposure as possible.

The last and most difficult front on which this epidemic must be fought is within the ego of America itself. We live in a culture that asks us to find the most powerful energy drink instead of figuring out why we’re so tired. Community, friendship, and society has become more and more compartmentalized as political differences have increased, and technology has made it easier and easier to be alone.

As a culture, we need to rekindle a space that emphasizes interpersonal experience, meaning, and the empowerment of finding direction in one’s life. This isn’t just about addiction, but about unity with one another. Without this shift, we are destined to swing further and further into our own world, increasingly becoming unable to give help to those who need it.

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