What’s been rumored since Prince‘s death on April 21 has now been reported as fact: Toxicology tests show the music icon died of an opioid overdose. Those findings will no doubt spike more pointed conversations about addiction to prescription painkillers — a situation that’s been labeled an epidemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“It’s confusing to me why Prince is suddenly the one who’s broken through,” addiction medicine specialist and media personality Dr. Drew Pinsky tells Billboard. “Look at the death of any musician or celebrity in the last five years: 95-plus percent of them will be exactly the same kind of death. I’ve been screaming loudly about this for five years and complaining for 10.”
Among those who recently joined the conversation are President Barack Obama and rapper Macklemore, who has battled prescription drug abuse. The pair teamed up at the White House to discuss opioid abuse and the need for more funding for treatment during the president’s weekly address on May 14. Their dialogue will be part of a one-hour documentary about the subject that Macklemore is working on with MTV, slated to air later this year.
Just how serious should the public take these wake-up calls? Stats from the CDC and other sources provide sobering intel. Underscoring stats cited by Obama in his address, Marcia Lee Taylor, president/CEO of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (formerly Drug-Free America), says prescription drug abuse and the overdoses associated with them is now the leading cause of accidental deaths in the U.S. — overtaking automobile deaths nationwide.
Breaking that down further, Taylor says that each day 44 people in the U.S. die from an overdose of prescription drugs. And in terms of opioids overall, 78 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. Taylor notes that the leading prescription drugs in the latter instance stem from the opiate family of painkiller drugs that includes percocet, vicodin and oxycotin. The second-leading cause of such deaths can be traced to the benzodiazepines family of anxiety-reducing drugs, which includes valium and xanax.
“What we’ve seen over the past decade or so is the overdose rate creeping up,” adds Taylor. “While there are still people who overdose on other drugs, the sharp increase is really attributed to prescription drugs.”
“The tsunami, as I’ve been calling the prescription opioid and benzodiazepines excess, is just unbelievable,” says Pinsky. “Eighty to 90 percent of the opioids prescribed around the globe are prescribed in this country, nearly 100 percent of the vicodin and 81 percent of the percocet. These medicines do have use but they’re grotesquely overdone.”
At the same time, this drug issue is fueling another epidemic: heroin. When opioid addicts can no longer secure prescriptions and can’t afford the high cost of these drugs on the street, they turn to the cheaper alternative of heroin. “It’s scary,” says Taylor, whose organization also works with families still parenting addicted children in their 30s and 40s. “What we’re seeing right now is that four out of five heroin users started with prescription drugs.”
Both Taylor and Pinsky agree that the medical and treatment communities need to be re-educated on how to deal with patients and pain management. Not every minor injury or dental visit warrants a 30-day prescription for a powerful painkiller. In addition, Taylor sees a reticence in the medical community to flag the addictive nature of these substances. “So a lot of people have bottles and bottles of this stuff in their medicine cabinets,” she says. “And that’s the No. 1 place where teens get these medications.”
Pinsky says that when he tells an insurance company that a patient needs two months of treatment, “They laugh at me and send the patient to a doctor that will prescribe replacement medication as an outpatient, which is far cheaper. There’s a huge philosophical divide between people like me who believe in treating these patients on an abstinence basis and the gigantic school of thought that we just need to find the right pill.”
While Taylor says prescription drug abuse is a problem that doesn’t discriminate — all ages, races, across all job sectors and geography — Pinsky says a study he conducted found such addiction more prevalent among musicians. “Essentially, our study shows that people who seek the limelight are trying to solve a problem usually caused by a trauma,” he explains. “Prince chronicled his childhood and he had severe childhood trauma. And childhood trauma is associated with pain and pursuing opioids.”
It was actor Heath Ledger’s 2008 death that triggered Pinsky’s alarm about a burgeoning prescription drug epidemic. “I said then, ‘Here it comes,’” he recalls. “This is a major health issue of our time that’s being reflected in the recent deaths of celebrities and musicians. I’m glad this one is finally getting people’s attention.”