The stretch of I-15 from Provo to Salt Lake City is filled with billboards for tech companies, car dealerships, and several billboards warning of the latest “American plague:” Opioids.
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. Utah has the seventh-highest drug overdose rate in the U.S., with an estimated six deaths per week caused by opioid overdose.
In 2015, there were 52,404 lethal drug overdoses in the U.S., 33,091 of which were related to opioids. Comparatively, there were 35,092 fatalities caused by car accidents and 13,506 gun-related deaths.
A history of opioids
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids are a class of drug that includes the illegal drug heroin and pain relievers legally available by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), morphine and many others.
In the medical field, opioids are used for pain relief and even anesthesia, but they can become addictive due to the euphoric sensation they produce, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Opioids like morphine and heroin have been staples of medicine since the early 1800s, but in the 1990s there was a shift in American medicine regarding the treatment of pain.
Clinicians began emphasizing the assessment and treatment of pain, including it as a fifth vital sign alongside heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and body temperature.
BYU health science professor Gordon Lindsay cites this emphasis on pain as an underlying cause for today’s opioid epidemic.
“There was a great liberalization in medical practice regarding the use of opioids for pain. No pain was the objective, so the overall prescribing patterns loosened up,” Lindsay said. “You see a very strong correlation between the total number of pills prescribed and the total number of addicts.”
According to a Pew Research Center survey, 46 percent of U.S. adults say they have a family member or close friend who is or has been addicted to drugs.
Women may be the most affected by this liberalization of prescribing pain medication.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine found women become dependent on prescription pain relievers more quickly than men, because women are more likely to have chronic pain and be prescribed pain relievers.
Young adults are also an at-risk demographic.
Data gathered in 2015 from the American Society of Addiction Medicine recorded 122,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 with an addiction to prescription pain relievers.
Lindsay said he believes the increase in prescription drug use is largely caused by a sense of extremism tied to pharmaceuticals.
“When we use pharmaceuticals, we go for the atomic bomb when a hand grenade would do,” Lindsay said. “We’re too quick to use the heavy-duty stuff when we’ve had any amount of pain and a simple Advil would be sufficient.”
Several states — including Texas, Michigan and Georgia — have begun pursuing legal action against big pharmaceutical companies. Salt Lake County recently joined in the movement.
The Salt Lake County lawsuit seeks coverage for the costs of social services and drug treatment programs for opioid abusers, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
President Donald Trump officially declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency at a press conference on Oct. 26.
“As Americans, we cannot allow this to continue. It is time to liberate our communities from this scourge of drug addiction,” Trump said at the conference. “We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic. We can do it.”
However, Trump opted to address the epidemic under the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which will not provide additional government funding to combat the epidemic.
Overcoming opioid addiction
Cirque Lodge is one such treatment center in Utah dedicated to helping addicts overcome substance abuse issues and supporting their families through the process.
Cirque Lodge Executive Director Gary Fisher works with recovering addicts everyday and said he was inspired to enter the field of addiction medicine because of his own former battle with addiction.
Fisher said Trump’s acknowledgment of the opioid epidemic as a public health emergency was a step in the right direction, but said federal funding is an absolute necessity in order to truly fix the problem.
One reason people can be so reluctant to spend money on the opioid epidemic, Fisher said, is because of the stigma associated with addicts.
“We don’t want to pay for peoples’ addictive issues until our family gets affected by it,” Fisher said. “Drug addicts are kind of a disenfranchised population, and so it doesn’t really get a lot of attention until it’s someone in our family, and then it becomes immensely personal.”
Both Fisher and Lindsay said an increase in the quantity and quality of education about drugs and addiction is critical to addressing the opioid epidemic.
Fisher and Lindsay both described addiction as an immensely complex brain disease that can be difficult to overcome.
The American Psychiatric Association recently recognized addiction as a brain disease with the release of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM.
The DSM defines addiction as “a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use … to the point that it takes over their life.”
Despite these difficulties and complexities, Fisher said recovery is still possible and achievable through hard work.
“Treatment works, and no matter where you are in your addiction, you absolutely can put it in remission,” Fisher said. “There’s a lot of hope, so if you have an issue, get help.”
One former addict who wished to remain anonymous shared her story of recovery with The Daily Universe, and will be referred to as “Jane.”
Jane credits Narcotics Anonymous meetings as the key to her continued sobriety, despite her difficult road to getting clean.
Jane said she began using illegal substances at age 12 and didn’t reach sobriety until age 20, but she has now been sober for five years.
Jane said even just deciding not to use was difficult. Today, Jane serves as a sponsor for other struggling addicts.
“Now I go to the (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings to help, and to share my message with people who don’t know how to not use,” Jane said.
As someone who personally struggled with opioid addiction, Jane encourages others —especially young addicts — to seek out help. She said she believes “you’re never too young to get clean.”
Lindsay said he hopes to see substantial improvement in the fight against the opioid epidemic, with more recovery stories and less overdoses than the nation has seen in recent years.
“I’ve seen too many fatalities and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be,” Lindsay said. “We can do a much better job as a society on this one.”