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Brief Explanation of Opioid Crisis

Health & Benefits

A number of factors have contributed to an increase in opioid-related overdoses and deaths.

What is the opioid crisis?

The opioid crisis is a public health emergency that has affected the United States since the 1990s.  It is marked by the extensive use of opioids. Opioids are a type of pain relief drug including prescription painkillers and illicit drugs like heroin and fentanyl. Opioids have contributed to death for hundreds of thousands of people.

Why did the opioid crisis begin?

In the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies marketed opioids as a solution for pain management. During this time, health providers increased prescribing their patients opioids like OxyContin® and Vicodin®, believing that these medications were not highly addictive. As patients sought relief from pain, they also found themselves dependent on medication.

Opioid medications quickly became household names, prescribed for everything from minor ailments to post-surgical pain. It was also common at this time for health providers to prescribe opioids for longer periods of time than necessary. In cases where patients failed to use all of the opioids they were prescribed, the remaining pills commonly ended up in the possession of teenagers who found them and drug dealers who would pay street value.

How did the opioid crisis escalate?

The first wave of the opioid crisis began in the 1990s when health providers increased prescribing opioids. During this time, overdose deaths involving prescription opioids increased. 

By the early 2000s, the medical community, law enforcement, and policymakers struggled to provide relief. Opioid-related deaths and rising addiction rates were being reported in every state.

When individuals struggled to obtain or afford prescription opioids, many turned to illicit opioid substances like heroin. The second wave of the opioid crisis began in 2010 with the rise in overdose deaths involving heroin. The transition from prescription opioids to street drugs marked a dangerous turning point. 

The third wave of the opioid crisis began in 2013 with the rise in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids like those manufactured with fentanyl.

What is the current state of the opioid crisis?

As of 2021, the rate of drug overdose deaths was more than six times the number in 1999, with over 75% attributed to opioids. Opioid-related deaths increased by over 15% during the Covid-19 pandemic. While heroin-involved death rates decreased approximately 32%, synthetic opioid-involved death rates increased by 22%.

Efforts have been taken in recent years to curb the crisis. These efforts include, but are not limited to, increasing access to addiction treatment, expanding availability of the overdose reversal drug naloxone, and enforcing responsible prescribing practices. However, economic disparities, mental health struggles, and drug trafficking continue to complicate the path to resolution.

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