Fault Lines

Take as Prescribed: Drug Addiction in the US

Fault Lines explores what is behind the growing number of elderly Americans becoming addicted to painkillers.

The US consumes 80 percent of the world’s supply of painkillers, and overdoses from prescription opioid drugs kill at least 16,000 Americans every year – more than cocaine and heroin combined.

Once thought to be a problem of the young, opioid addiction is becoming more common among elderly Americans.

We see the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in older Americans.... When you look at the groups that have had the greatest increase in problems associated with prescription opioids, for example, visits to hospital emergency rooms because of opioid misuse, it's Americans over 65 that have had the largest increase.

by Dr Andrew Kolodny, Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing Americans

“I was taking exactly what the doctor prescribed, when the doctor prescribed, how the doctor prescribed,” says Larry Moore, who calls himself an “accidental addict.” He said he wasted years of his life in “a deep, deep hole” hooked on painkillers.

When asked who should have stopped it, he says it should have been the doctors. “I was just doing what the doctors told me to do.”

It is not just doctors under scrutiny. Two counties in California are suing the five major opioid drug manufacturers for “waging a campaign of deception.”

The California complaint alleges that the companies misrepresented the benefits and downplayed potential side effects of opioid use for pain management and began marketing opioids for the treatment of chronic pain. The suit claims that the elderly population was targeted because they are more likely to suffer from chronic pain – and they are well insured.

“Before the 1990s, opioids were rarely prescribed except for acute pain and for palliative care, for the treatment of, like, cancer pain. In order to change that culture, the complaint explains how the drug companies implemented a decades-long scheme to alter the prescribing habits of doctors, as well as the drug use of patients who suffer from chronic pain,” says Danny Chou, assistant county counsel, Santa Clara County, an attorney involved in the case.

Shirley Scharr, an 86-year-old pain patient prescribed a high-dosage of opioid painkillers, says that she does not know if she has “the courage to stop” taking them despite using other methods to reduce her pain.

“I wish they’d come up with something else that would be more helpful that isn’t so addicting. And I guess I’m addicted. I don’t know. I’ve done this for several years,” she says.

While doctors and patients debate the best ways to deal with chronic pain, millions of senior citizens continue to fill new prescriptions for narcotics – with a growing number of them suffering devastating consequences, leaving families struggling to make sense of deaths they believe could have been prevented.

Fault Lines speaks to former and current elderly opioid addicts, meets a man who lost his wife to an overdose, and looks at how some are fighting back to stop the epidemic in its tracks.