More can be done to educate about danger of opioids
As Pennsylvania and the nation face down an opioid crisis killing thousands, there are some lessons to be gained from looking backward to other drug and substance abuse crises of the past.
For decades, the nation has campaigned against the dangers of smoking, snorting cocaine, and driving while under the influence of alcohol. Media campaigns, billboards, speeches, high school assemblies have been venues for messages meant to frighten young people.
These powerful messages were designed to prevent fatal mistakes of driving after a night of drinking.
Those messages are still seen and heard, and there are still far too many drunk driving deaths.
But DUIs have been replaced as a parent’s worst nightmare by the spectre of opioid and heroin addiction and overdose deaths.
A pair of studies released in 2015 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed that campaigns to combat drunk driving are working, but use of marijuana and prescription drugs is increasingly prominent on the highways.
One study found that the number of drivers with alcohol in their system had declined by nearly one-third since 2007, and by more than three-quarters since the first survey in 1973. But that same survey found a large increase in the number of drivers using marijuana or other illegal drugs.
In the 2014 survey, nearly one in four drivers tested positive for at least one drug that could affect safety.
“America made drunk driving a national issue and while there is no victory as long as a single American dies in an alcohol-related crash, a onethird reduction in alcohol use over just seven years shows how a focused effort and cooperation among the federal government, states and communities, law enforcement, safety advocates and industry can make an enormous difference,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind at the time of the studies’ release.
In another study examining the reduction in drunken driving over the past 15 years, public relations and education campaigns were among the factors found to be contributing to the decrease, along with increased DUI enforcement and ignition-lock devices.
“Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” is a mantra that’s played out today at parties, gathering and bars, which didn’t exist 20 years ago. Drinkers turn in their keys at the door at parties and more likely sleep on a friend’s couch before nodding off behind the wheel.
Today the crisis threatening young lives is opioid abuse, often starting with a prescription for pain killers for an injury or with unused pills found in a household medicine cabinet.
The road those pills may lead someone down is not obvious. Fear of pills — of taking a few more for the pain or of experimenting with them just one time — has not been drilled into the minds of young people.
Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf declared the state’s opioid addiction epidemic a public health emergency and pledged state resources to combat it.
The declaration included 13 initiatives to bolster state and local response for stronger monitoring to prevent prescription abuse, improved immediate response to overdoses and improved tools to save lives, and better access to treatment centers.
Similarly in New Jersey, the ReachNJ campaign has blanketed the region with a message that drug use requires help and that help is available.
These are critical and vitally important steps to save lives and restore hope to families.
But there is another campaign that should be waged to battle the insidious threat of opioid abuse and heroin addiction: A public relations and education campaign that highlights the risks of pill abuse.
In addition to the proactive and life-saving initiatives for treatment, we suggest the state, and the nation, wage a campaign aimed at stopping young people from ever taking that first or that extra pill.
If the message broadcast, repeated and printed countless times about drinking and driving took hold with a generation, then a similar message about prescription opioids may have an effect on a new generation.
“Friends don’t let friends pop pain-killers.” When that message is taken to heart, when peer pressure works against drug use, there may be some hope at ending this epidemic.