Death by Prescription Drugs: Obama Addresses the National Painkiller Epidemic

by Sarah Sciortino


On April 24th, 2013, the Obama Administration released their National Drug Control Strategy in an attempt to address the salient issue of death by drug overdose: the now leading cause of accidental death in this country. The statistics surrounding prescription drug abuse are staggering. These legal drugs are responsible for killing 38,300 Americans in 2010 alone. These are the drugs that kids have the easiest access to: They’re in your medicine cabinet or on your dresser; doctors prescribed them for surgical recovery, anxiety, or chronic pain. But, despite their legitimate purpose, these pills are being dangerously misused by people of all ages.



In response to the devastating impact of pain pills, the Obama Administration created the Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Plan: A strategy meant to shut down “pill mills”, deny ”doctor shoppers”, and find a sustainable way of keeping these drugs away from the American youth. The strategy includes four pillars: 1) Education of physicians about opiate painkiller prescribing; 2) Implementation of state drug monitoring programs; 3) Increasing prescription return through take-back and disposal services; and 4) Assisting state law enforcement in order to shut down illegal operations concerning prescription painkillers.


Despite this extensive plan, the Obama Administration failed to address the desperate need for heightened public awareness.  Is the American public aware of what “doctor shoppers” or “pain mills” are? Do teenagers realize the ease of addiction, the pain of withdrawal, or the fatal threat of these legal drugs? Do parents know that prescription pills like Xanax, Opana, or OxyContin are the new “party drugs”?


The Obama Administration’s plan addresses educating prescribers and ensuring that medical professionals are managing their patients’ pain with integrity and ultimate precaution. But, what about educating the public? Maybe instead of surrounding Americans with a multitude of advertisements for prescription drugs, we should be seeing safety warnings
or cautionary tales of addiction, pain, and death. The United States and New Zealand are currently the only two countries in the world that allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise directly to consumers. Although these ads may increase public understanding of pain and mood disorders, there are other ways this information can be conveyed to the American people.


The one component of the Obama Administration’s Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Plan that incorporates working directly with the public is the nationwide implementation of take-back days. These disposal programs allow for individuals to hand in any unused or expired prescriptions with anonymity.  The results of these programs have been astounding. Just one of these take-back days resulted in 3,000 pounds of prescription drugs from participants in Orange Country, California. These programs, coordinated by both state officials and DEA agents, have resulted in the safe disposal of over two million pounds of unneeded medications that otherwise may have been misused.


Although these results are indeed promising, it is important to continue fighting against this epidemic that still claims lives every day. A trend that has recently been discussed and was presented alongside the Obama Administration’s Drug Control Strategy is the disturbing rise in heroin use among teenagers. In Brent Huff’s “Behind the Orange Curtain”, a documentary focusing on the prescription drug epidemic in Orange County, teenagers spoke of transitioning to heroin in order to achieve the same high as the painkillers they had started with.


Now isn’t that something? America’s teenagers are turning to heroin for the same drug effects they achieve with legal prescription pills. Heroin and painkillers may now seem interchangeable, but there is still one major difference: Prescription pills kill more people each year than heroin and cocaine combined.


It’s time for the American people to grasp the severity of the prescription drug epidemic. In a society addicted to the quick fix, the pain pill is appealing for many reasons. But, in a country containing 4.6% of the world’s population, we simply should not be consuming 99% of the world’s hydrocodone supply. Obama’s plan isn’t enough. In order to truly gain control over this rampant drug movement, we need a societal shift in how we understand medications, drugs, addiction, and pain.


Sarah Sciortino is currently a student working to get her master’s in social work at University of Southern California.


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