South Carolina has a drug problem, and many elected leaders have begun looking at how best to deal with it. In August, I also took action. My office filed a lawsuit against a company for its role in creating that problem. This lawsuit is not a magical silver bullet that will end this epidemic, and the company being sued is not solely to blame for the crisis. However, when we look at the statistics and we read the stories we are left with the inescapable conclusion that we must take action now.
In 2016, South Carolina ranked 9th in the nation in opioid prescribing rates. Since 2011, more than 3,000 South Carolinians have died from prescription opioid overdoses. In 2015, there were more deaths in South Carolina from taking prescription opioids or heroin than there were homicides. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of babies born addicted to opioids has quadrupled. There have been more opioid prescriptions written between 2012 and 2016 than there are residents in South Carolina.
There are some who believe that this epidemic only affects "druggies" or heroin users, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that most heroin users started with prescription opioids. More than three out of four new heroin users report abusing prescription opioids first.
Typically, someone gets hurt or has surgery and is given a prescription opioid for pain. Because the drugs are so addictive, they may continue to take the drug even after they should have stopped or at doses that are dangerously high. Once they can no longer get more of the prescription drug, they turn to buying heroin on the street because heroin is also an opioid. Many of the overdoses happen because the potency of street heroin varies so widely and sometimes includes fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that's even stronger than heroin. Whether it is prescription opioids, heroin or fentanyl, the result is too often deadly.
Many of our citizens have personally struggled or watched a loved one struggle with this addiction. Many have watched a loved one die from this addiction. As taxpayers, we need to be concerned as well. Since 2007, South Carolina has spent roughly $15.8 million on Purdue opioids through its Medicaid program and more than $28 million through our State Health Plan for public employees. Medicaid spending for OxyContin from 2013 to 2016 was 90 percent more than the closest competitor drug. There has been an additional burden and expense borne by law enforcement, emergency providers and social service agencies, including $6 million in expenses for agencies treating substance abuse disorders alone.
The statistics and stories are alarming, and they demand action. That's why my office has filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin and other opioids. Let me be clear that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a credible company lawfully selling an approved drug on the free market to people who desperately need it. However, when, as our complaint alleges, a company knowingly markets an extremely dangerous and addictive drug to doctors and patients in a way that leads them to believe that it is not as dangerous or addictive, or more effective, that is a problem.
This lawsuit is one of the ways we can fight the opioid epidemic; however, everyone has a role to play. We can all personally fight the epidemic by taking these steps:
- If you have an injury or surgery and a doctor prescribes an opioid for pain, ask if there's an alternative.
- If you and your doctor decide an opioid is the best option, get it and take it for the shortest time possible. One problem now is that a doctor may prescribe a 30-day supply when all that's really needed is three or four days.
- If you do have prescription painkillers, keep them locked up so someone else cannot abuse them.
- And if you have leftover pills, dispose of them immediately by taking them to a participating pharmacy that's a controlled substance public disposal location. You can also take them to your local police department or sheriff's office that takes part in National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. The next one will be on Oct. 28.
In addition to taking these steps, we all need to become better educated on this threat. The opioid epidemic is real, and it is devastating our communities, but we can slow and even reverse it by having open conversations and working together.
Editor's note: Alan Wilson is the South Carolina attorney general.