Painkillers have become a prescription for addiction for millions of Americans. In this evolving epidemic, death rates from overdoses are rising much faster for women than they are for men, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
Today, more women die from overdoses of prescription painkillers than from cervical cancer or homicide. The opioid epidemic has hit white women — many from rural areas such as Appalachian Ohio — harder than black women, and older women more than younger ones.
To alleviate this problem, public health programs must take addiction to drugs that have legitimate medical uses as seriously as the abuse of street drugs such as heroin, which affects the same pain receptors in the brain as painkillers do.
A recent story in the New York Times highlighted the changing face of prescription drug abuse. Reported from Portsmouth, Ohio, on Appalachia’s northwestern edge, the article cited growing pressures on single, working-class women who must raise and support their children alone. Opioids gave them energy and a sense of euphoria that enabled them to handle their many responsibilities and, even encumbered by poverty, feel good about themselves.
But in Ohio and the rest of the country, the costs of addiction are high, including severe depression, painful withdrawal symptoms, and fatal overdoses. Every year, more than 1 million Americans land in emergency rooms because of prescription drug abuse; the problem has grown steadily since 2004.
In 2010, more than 6,600 women died of opioid overdoses — five times more than in 1999 and a rate of increase nearly twice that of men. For men and women, more than 16,000 deaths — 43 percent of all fatal drug overdoses — were attributed to the abuse of prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin.
Despite the alarming statistics, many Americans, especially teenagers, still believe prescription drugs are relatively harmless. Any effective anti-abuse program must start with public education and adequate treatment. Doctors must get better educated about the addictive potential of the drugs they prescribe.
In Portsmouth, mothers of dead addicts are talking to schoolchildren about prescription drug abuse. The most effective public service efforts on drug abuse use local people, recognizable to many in the community, who have been directly affected by drugs.
States also need better prescription monitoring systems to detect so-called doctor shopping for multiple prescriptions. Finally, restricting access to these drugs could also help.
A U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel has recommended reclassifying Vicodin, now a Schedule III drug, and other hydrocodone medications, making them more-restrictive Schedule II drugs. That change, for example, would end automatic refills.
Regulators need to remember, though, that nearly 50 million people get hydrocodone prescriptions each year, most of them to ease chronic pain. Restricting access could make it harder for people to get the drugs they need to lead productive lives.
Prescription painkillers have eased an enormous amount of pain for millions of Americans. But raising awareness about their dangers must become a far higher priority for local, state, and federal governments. If not, millions more, including a growing number of women, will feel the pain of addiction.