When pop star Prince died in April 2016, a gaggle of health care researchers and reporters—including me—tried to see the silver lining in his surprising, opioid-linked death. If even Prince, a famous teetotaler with access to the best medical care, could end up addicted to painkillers, surely that would show that the opioid epidemic was reaching every corner of America. Maybe in death, his celebrity could illuminate the high stakes of the crisis and force a reckoning.
We were very wrong. More than 55,000 Americans—rich, poor, famous and not—have since died from their own opioid overdoses. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that the death rate in 2018 could be even worse. And Friday night’s news that rock star Tom Petty died from his own preventable painkiller overdose, more than a year after Prince, underscores how far there is to go.
The problems are systemic, and too entrenched to be shaken by a few high-profile victims. About 91 people now die from opioid overdoses every day, the CDC says—a conservative estimate—thanks to a potent mix of stigmas, addictions, lack of awareness and inadequate access to care and prevention.
The problems indeed are systemic. But such problems can be addressed by taking a systemic and evidence based approach to experimenting with fixes to improve the situation and adjusting to the results of those experiments. It requires that we invest in giving qualified people the authority and resources to act and that we support their efforts over the long term.
Such efforts have been successful. Recently Japan achieved its 8th consecutive year of reduction in the suicides. Those efforts have been taken with an approach similar to that the USA needs to take.
Related: President Obama Proposes $1.1 Billion in New Funding to Address the Prescription Opioid Abuse and Heroin Use Epidemic – Prescription Drug Abuse in the USA (2013) – The Death of Philip Seymour Hoffman Highlights the Increased Use of Heroin (2014)