By Megan May
Drug overdoses, mainly opioid-affiliated, have surged in the United States in recent years. According to recent health data, deaths from drug overdose will soon surpass the number of deaths due to motor vehicle accidents each year in Georgia. This substance abuse problem warrants serious concern regarding Georgia’s state of public health, and the problem only escalates as weeks pass.
Tackling the opioid epidemic is no easy feat, and understanding the scope of the problem is the first step in securing a future where lives are not lost to drug addiction.
Opioid medications such as morphine, tramadol, oxycodone and methadone are widely prescribed to patients suffering from moderate to severe pain. These medicines are legal and provide needed relief for those suffering. But they can be highly addictive. In the illegal drug market, the substance heroin is a predominant opioid that produces similar effects to prescription opioids.
Both legal and illegal opioids have a high potential for abuse. The combination of illicit and prescription opioid abuse, widespread availability and the subsequent rise in drug overdoses provoke serious public health concerns.
Georgia is not immune to this new epidemic, with the opioid crisis touching every economic class, age, race and geographical area. Data from 2015 show that 1,307 lives were lost to opioid drug overdose in Georgia; of those, 42 percent were from prescription opioids. For comparison: That same year, there were 1,432 fatalities due to motor vehicle accidents on Georgia roadways. Recent data indicate the number of opioid-related deaths is on the rise.
The complexity of tackling this challenge cannot be understated. Several variables come into play when looking at opioid abuse data. The opioid epidemic is growing fast, and the most accurate and comprehensive data is from 2015. The escalation from year to year is staggering. Opiod-related deaths increased from 83 in 1999 to 385 in 2007 to 1,307 in 2015.
Data depicting opioid overdose by age group are the most harrowing. For those 24 years old and under in Georgia, there were 94 deaths in 2015. For those 25-34 years old, it increased to 252 deaths. The age group 35-44 years had 189 reported deaths; among 45- to 54-year-olds there were 171 deaths, and the 55-plus age group had 152 deaths. Clearly, opioid addiction is not a generational problem but one that affects individuals at every age, with the potential for abuse escalating into adulthood. Apparently, with age does not necessarily come wisdom.
Not only is this a public health concern, it also has serious economic implications. The Substance Abuse Research Alliance, a program of the Georgia Prevention Project, estimated that health care costs affiliated with opioid abuse reached $447 million a decade ago in Georgia. Since then, deaths due to opioids have more than tripled in our state.
This path has led us to a grim reality, but we can move forward with hope for better outcomes in the future. There are proposed strategies to combat the opioid epidemic and make a healthy, wholesome future a reality.
First, make life-saving medicine like naloxone, a drug that is administered to a person during an overdose, more readily available to the public to reduce the number of deaths from opioid overdose. This does not solve the epidemic, but medicine that can reverse overdose symptoms and training on how to administer it during an emergency can save lives.
Second, educate the public about the dangers of drug misuse: Pain management drugs, though prescribed by a licensed physician, should be handled with the utmost care because of a high tendency to become dependent upon them – and never be shared with friends or family.
Third, we should increase education and oversight of physicians and focus on a system that red-flags doctors who prescribe an unusually high number of opioids to their patients, with severe consequences for professionals who abuse their privileges.
Finally, focusing adequate funding on proven public health programs is necessary to successfully combat this epidemic. Funding for rehabilitation clinics, substance abuse programs and opioid research is crucial to effect positive change.
There is not one single, clear solution to the opioid problem. A combination of processes, policies and programs need to be implemented to encourage and ensure a future free of unbridled opioid addiction.
Megan May, a graduate of Georgia College and State University and research assistant at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Foundation is an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the view of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (July 21, 2017). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.