Opioid Addiction Now Surpasses Smoking

By Joseph Mercola
Joseph Mercola
Joseph Mercola
Dr. Joseph Mercola is the founder of Mercola.com. An osteopathic physician, best-selling author, and recipient of multiple awards in the field of natural health, his primary vision is to change the modern health paradigm by providing people with a valuable resource to help them take control of their health.
November 29, 2016 Updated: December 12, 2016

It’s time to face the facts. America has a very serious drug addiction problem, and it stems from overprescription of painkillers. According to a recent report by the U.S. surgeon general, more Americans now use prescription opioids than smoke cigarettes.

Substance abuse in general has also eclipsed cancer in terms of prevalence. Addiction to opioids and heroin is costing the U.S. more than $193 billion each year. Alcohol abuse is costing another $249 billion. In total, the cost of substance abuse far exceeds the cost of diabetes, which is also at a record high. 

Opiates such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl and morphine are also killing more Americans than car crashes. In 2014, more than 49,700 Americans died from opioid or heroin overdoses while 32,675 died in car accidents. According to the surgeon general’s report, in 2015:

  • 27 million Americans took opioids
  • More than 66 million (nearly 25 percent of the total adolescent and adult population) reported binge drinking at some point in the previous month

A Brief History on Heroin

Heroin was initially introduced by Bayer Co. in 1898. It was hailed as a “wonder drug,” commonly used to treat pain and cough. Addiction rates grew once it was discovered that its effects were amplified when injected. As reported by CNN in an article covering the history of opioids:

“In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act imposed a tax on those making, importing or selling any derivative of opium or coca leaves. By the 1920s, doctors were aware of the highly addictive nature of opioids and tried to avoid treating patients with them.

Prescription patterns took a radical turn in the mid-1990s, when opioids became the focus of a campaign aimed at increasing prescriptions to non-terminal patients with pain.

Heroin became illegal in 1924 … By the mid- and late-1970s, when Percocet and Vicodin came on the market, doctors had long been taught to avoid prescribing highly addictive opioids to patients.

But an 11-line letter printed in the New England Journal of Medicine [NEJM] in January 1980 pushed back on the popular thought that using opioids to treat chronic pain was risky.

In it, Jane Porter and Dr. Hershel Jick mentioned their analysis of 11,882 patients who were treated with narcotics. They wrote that ‘the development of addiction is rare in medical patients with no history of addiction.'”

Prescription opioids had been increasingly prescribed to patients with terminal illnesses, but prescription patterns took a radical turn in the mid-1990s, when opioids became the focus of a campaign aimed at increasing prescriptions to non-terminal patients with pain.

The Birth of OxyContin

Purdue Pharma started selling OxyContin in 1996. Two years later, the company produced a promotion video that was distributed to 15,000 doctor’s offices across the U.S. In the video, a doctor is featured saying:

The rate of addiction among pain patients who are treated by doctors is less than 1 percent. They don’t wear out; they go on working; they do not have serious medical side effects. So, these drugs, which I repeat, are our best, strongest pain medications, should be used much more than they are for patients in pain.”

Many, including young people, have also died as a result. As noted by Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): “We know of no other medication routinely used for a nonfatal condition that kills patients so frequently.” According to Frieden, studies show that addiction affects about 26 percent of those using opioids for chronic non-cancer pain. Worse, 1 in 550 patients on opioid therapy die from opioid-related causes within 2.5 years of their first prescription!

In addition to that, most studies investigating long-term use of opioids have lasted a mere six weeks or less, and those that lasted longer have, by and large, found “consistently poor results.” Several of them found that opioid use worsened pain over time and led to decreased functioning — an effect thought to be related to increased pain perception.

19 Non-Drug Solutions for Pain Relief

In October, comedian John Oliver took aim at the burgeoning drug epidemic, noting the roots of the problem: narcotic pain killers, and more importantly, drug companies that falsely claimed they were non-addictive and safe to use for virtually all kinds of pain. Well, the jig is now up, and such claims can no longer be made. It’s extremely important to be fully aware of the addictive potential of opioid drugs, and to seriously weigh your need for them.

There are many other ways to address pain. Here are 15 Natural Remedies for Back Pain