Thirteen years ago, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the director of the National Institutes of Health urged the then-U.S. Surgeon General to issue a call to action – its most urgent warning to the public – about an emerging public health issue. If action wasn’t taken to curb the “disturbing” trend of opioid addiction – especially among teenagers – overdose deaths would soar to epidemic proportions, they warned.
In the March 2006 memo, obtained by Politico under the Freedom of Information Act, NIDA director Nora Volkow wrote to then-U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, “Given the startling statistics, efforts to heighten awareness of this problem should be a top public health priority.”
The memo sparked immediate interest, and various agencies met to discuss how to move the action forward, Carmona told Politico. But a few weeks later, Carmona’s term ended and he was replaced by an acting surgeon general. Gradually, the urgency in the matter waned. Public health officials at the time just couldn’t wrap their minds around the magnitude of the opioid epidemic a decade in the future.
In the time since, there have been more than 133,000 overdose deaths from prescription opioids, a number that pales in comparison to the hundreds and thousands of deaths caused by street drugs like heroin and illicit fentanyl – drugs that opioid addicts often turn to when prescription drugs become too hard to obtain.
Had the public health crisis horn been sounded by the federal government then, it may have curbed the aggressive marketing of pharmaceutical companies that erroneously led doctors to believe the painkillers were safe. It may not have left a nation addicted to drugs. Instead, public health officials set their sights on other issues, Carmona said.
“We were dealing with global health, national preparedness after September 11th, bioterrorism,” he said. “The crisis was in its infancy. It wasn’t like we dropped the ball.”