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Addressing the Opioid Epidemic

By Dr. Nate Smith, MD, MPH – Director & State Health Officer, Arkansas Department of Health | Photography by Lori Sparkman Photography

   Every day, more than 130 people die in the United States from overdosing on opioids. In 2017, 416 of our fellow Arkansans died from a drug-related overdose. We often think of drug misuse and abuse as a problem that is outside of our circle and as something that wouldn’t affect our family or friends. Addiction and dependence do not discriminate. Opioid addiction and the associated consequences can affect any community, any family, or anyone.

   As the Director of the Arkansas Department of Health, and as your State Health Officer, I’ve been working with healthcare providers, community leaders, and other state offices and agencies such as the Office of the Drug Director to better understand and address this complex issue.

   First, it is important to understand what opioids are. An opioid is a type of drug that contains chemicals that can help relieve pain. There are some illegal drugs like heroin that are classified as opioids; however, there are many opioids that are legally prescribed drugs. They are painkillers like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and codeine.  These drugs can make you feel good, and those feelings can cause your brain and body to crave more of these drugs instead of other healthier things that can cause feelings of happiness. This is addiction.

   Even when prescribed by a doctor, opioids can be quickly addictive which increases the risk of misuse. Misuse of a prescription opioid includes taking a medicine in a way other than prescribed, taking someone else’s prescription, or taking the medicine with the goal of getting a “high” feeling. Unfortunately, the use of opioids can lead to very serious health effects including substance use dependence, damage of internal organs, and slowed breathing that can lead to brain damage or death.

   Opioid prescribing in Arkansas is widespread. In 2018, there were 102.1 opioid prescriptions for every 100 Arkansans. That equals more than one opioid prescription for every man, woman and child in the state. Our opioid prescribing is nearly double the national average.

   There are important steps for prevention that we all can take to help curb this epidemic. The first is to talk with your doctor when you are being prescribed a medication. Ask if it is an opioid and see if there are other non-opioid alternatives to the medicine. Second, keep your medicine locked up and away from others. This prevents people from taking your medicine. Finally, if you are done with a medicine, dispose of it at a safe and secure drop-off location like those that are listed at Artakeback.org.

For more information and resources about preventing opioid misuse and abuse, visit doseofreality.adh.arkansas.gov     

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