Ending the opioid epidemic is within our grasp
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The medicine cabinet in the average American home has turned into a new battlefield.

It's ground zero for an epidemic that is taking away the lives of thousands of people each year. No family or community is immune from opioid abuse and every day 78 people in this country die from an overdose. In many cases, it starts with a prescription for pain medication following a dental or surgical procedure. It should be temporary, but because of its addictive properties, many people get hooked on the drugs.

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I know people in my own community in Georgia who have lost loved ones and met many parents during my time in Congress who lost children to opioid abuse. While the word "drug addict" triggers a vision of a media stereotype of a lonely, downtrodden junkie desperately searching city streets for a way to get high, the reality is that in 2016, people struggling with addiction could be anyone — a neighbor, co-worker, family friend, brother or sister.

In 2014, nearly 2 million Americans abused or were dependent on prescription opioids, which include drugs such as oxycodone (e.g., Oxycontin), hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin) and methadone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC also found that the amount of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. had nearly quadrupled since 1999, even though the amount of pain that Americans reported hadn't changed.

Back when I was in medical school, we were taught to prescribe only what is necessary to help patients manage pain. Sometime in the early 1990s, doctors started receiving criticism that they were not prescribing enough painkillers to treat pain. Pain management medicine emerged as its own specialty, as professionals learned techniques to identify trigger points for pain directly and prescribe treatment. While many specialists do a fine job of diagnosing problems and work with patients on long-term pain management plans, too many others wind up overprescribing opioids; this can lead to dependency, addiction and overdose.

A recent study from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that more than 61 percent of U.S. adults with prescription medication kept leftover pills for use at a later time and nearly 14 percent said they were likely to share these pills with a family member in the future. These numbers are alarming because it shows that not only are doctors overprescribing these pills, but that the public sees them as so harmless that they can be passed on to other people like an over-the-counter drug.

That same study found that nearly half of respondents were not given information on safe storage or disposal of leftover pills and of those who did have the information, few participated in drug take-back programs. These leftover drugs, idly sitting in medicine cabinets, can get into the hands of teenagers experimenting with drugs. In some cases, toddlers and children have also gotten a hold of opioids and died of unintentional overdoses.

Fighting this epidemic will take solutions from a variety of angles. When someone is experiencing an opioid overdose, quick action with a dosage of Naloxone (commonly known by its brand name Narcan) could save his or her life. Naloxone is a Food and Drug Administration-approved medication and can be administered in a nasal spray or an injection. If emergency medical service staff and family and friends of people struggling with addiction are given training and access to Naloxone, we could prevent more overdose deaths. The rescue drug is temporary and provides enough time to get a person to a hospital before it's too late.

I commend my former colleagues for their recent efforts resulting in the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), which soon should be sent to the president for his signature. However, CARA is only a first step. People struggling with addiction are often reluctant to seek medical attention for an overdose because of fears of arrest and charges for drug possession. Good Samaritan laws provide immunity for those who call 911 if they are witnessing or attending to an overdose. Currently, 35 states and the District of Columbia have drug-related Good Samaritan laws. In a life and death situation, no one should be afraid to ask for help or worry that helping someone else will lead to criminal prosecution. We need more states to consider legislation that provides such immunity.

Safe storage and disposal of opioids are also necessary to stem the tide of opiate-related misuse, abuse and addiction. At home, opioids should be stored in secured and locked locations, and people should monitor prescription quantities on a regular basis to ensure that someone else isn't taking them. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and some city and county governments have drug take-back programs or authorized collection facilities such as retail stores, hospitals, clinic pharmacies or law enforcement stations.

We also need to have public awareness education campaigns, especially as part of anti-drug programs for children and teens. Research is starting to suggest a strong connection between opioids as a gateway to heroin use, and we need to make sure the public is aware of the dangers of prescription opioids.

When I've met parents who lost children to opioid abuse, the pain that I see in their eyes is immeasurable. But parallel to that pain is a resolute conviction that their child's death was absolutely preventable. These deaths are preventable. Unlike other disease epidemics where we need more research to find a cure, we have in our hands a variety of tools that we can use to drastically reduce fatalities and save lives. We need a strong commitment from policymakers to support initiatives to combat opioid abuse and overdoses. Ending this epidemic is within our grasp; we just need to reach for it.

Gingrey, M.D., is a senior adviser at the District Policy Group, a boutique policy and lobbying practice within Drinker Biddle & Reath. Dr. Gingrey is a former U.S. congressman who served Georgia's 11th Congressional District from 2003 to 2015. The views expressed are the author's own and are not an endorsement of the legislation mentioned.