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Tennesseans Fight Back Against the Opioid Epidemic

The United States has seen a staggering increase in rates of opioid addiction in the last 15 years,1 and the results have been tragic. When it comes to the battle against the country’s opioid addiction epidemic, Tennessee is on the front lines.

Mapping the Epidemic

During that 15-year period, the number of deaths from overdosing on commonly prescribed opioids rose from a little more than 1 to nearly 5 in 100,000 people.2 Yet even as America as a whole is being forced to grapple with the epidemic (a drive down Utah’s main interstate currently yields billboard after billboard of warnings regarding the state’s “opidemic”), it’s also true that some states appear to be more vulnerable than others. Between 2011 and 2014,3 Tennessee’s death rates due to overdose increased 19 percent before accelerating to 21 percent between 2014 and 2015.

Perhaps even more telling than the number of Tennesseans who die from the drug, is the number born addicted to it. Out of 81,602 live births recorded in 2014, a little more than 1,000 were born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), making Tennesseans twice as likely than the average American to know a baby born with the condition brought on by exposure to addictive opioids prior to birth.

There is no simple reason why some states are hit harder by opioid addiction than others, though some clues may be found in its correlation along lines of race and gender. Unlike previous US drug epidemics, the current one is most prevalent among the country’s white population. According to Dr. David Rosenbloom, professor of health policy and management at Boston University’s School of Public Health, the reason lies in the health industry’s long history of discrimination. “Blacks have been undertreated for pain for decades,” he said.

When it comes to gender, the crisis again represents a shift from previous ones. Whereas men have long proven to be more susceptible to substance abuse,7 women appear to be hit hardest when it comes to opioids, specifically painkillers. This is evidenced in the fact that between 1999 and 2010, deaths due to overdose by prescription drugs increased 400 percent among women, compared to 237 percent in men.

Given both of these patterns, it is telling that at 77.7 percent white, Tennessee is more than 14 percentage points above the national average. And whereas the nation as a whole stands at 50.8 percent female, Tennesse’s women represent 51.3 percent of its population.

Switch to the side of supply, and the numbers are even more ominous. In 2015 alone, health care professionals in Tennessee wrote more than 7.8 million opioid prescriptions. That’s more prescriptions than there are people, or 1.18 for every Tennessean, to be exact. Only one state — Alabama — exceeded this number with 1.2 per person.

Fighting Back

With numbers like these, it’s no wonder health care officials, legislators, and citizens are refusing to take a back seat in the fight. Among the efforts currently underway is the grassroots movement Count It! Lock It! Drop It! It initially took root in a single county before joining with the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation to form a statewide effort “to combat the misuse of prescription pain medication.”

The group’s approach is threefold, starting with encouraging those with painkillers to count their pills regularly. In addition to increased monitoring, the movement encourages owners to lock up their medications and, lastly, to dispose of any unused or expired drugs at police stations and pharmacies.

This seven-year effort was recently compounded by the creation of a special task force designed to study the issue. Formed by State House Speaker Beth Harwell, the group is comprised of seven lawmakers.

“Our main goal is to gather as much information as possible with an eye to try to draw many of the individual bills into as few bills as possible for presentation and passage,” task force member Rep. Curtis Halford told Foundations Recovery Network.

Overcoming the Stigma

Joy Fanguy started taking painkillers for migraines when she was around 14 years old. By her 20s, she was addicted. Now in her early 30s, Fanguy is playing catch up with her peers. But as she pointed out, she’s not alone.

“People don’t see the average person as being a possible opiate addict. I thought I’d be in a room with really scary looking people. I wasn’t,” Fanguy told The Tennessean. “I was in a room with people who looked like me. We’re your child’s teacher. Your banker. Your nurse. Your restaurant manager. We’re not bad people.

There are people out there who are waiting for someone to say these things out loud so they can say, ‘yeah, me too.’

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