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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

U.S. Officials Target Escalating Drug Overdoses

Deadly epidemic is driven by abuse of narcotic painkillers and heroin
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To break this link, the federal government has begun to crack down on "pill mills" and doctors who over-prescribe narcotic painkillers. It has also developed education programs for doctors and patients on prescribing painkillers and disposing of unused prescriptions.

Nearly 80 percent of people who recently started using heroin had previously used prescription pain relievers illegally, according to a U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report issued last April.

Hoffman's death, despite his efforts to stay clean, reminds experts that any fight against heroin must be broad and multi-pronged.

Waging a campaign against drugs isn't a simple matter of law enforcement, Kerlikowske said.

Seizures of heroin along the Mexican border increased 324 percent from 2008 to 2013, he said, but even rural areas of the United States are finding heroin easy to come by.

"It is clear we are not going to arrest our way out of this problem. Science has shown that drug addiction is a disease of the brain -- a disease that can be prevented, treated and from which one can recover," Kerlikowske said.

Wider use of the drug naloxone would help curb drug-related deaths, Kerlikowske said. When given to someone suffering an overdose, naloxone can almost immediately counteract a drug's lethal effect and save that person's life, he said.

Kerlikowske believes that first responders, such as police and EMTs, should routinely carry naloxone. "Saving a life is more important than making an arrest," he said.

In New York state, legislators this week proposed a bill that would allow a trained layperson to administer naloxone to someone at risk of an overdose.

Making treatment available for drug addiction is also a key tool, Kerlikowske said.

Under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies are required to cover treatment for drug addiction just as they would treatment for any other chronic disease, he said.

Drugs used to treat chronic addiction include naltrexone (Narcan), buprenorphine (Buprene) and methadone, Kerlikowske said.

"Medication-assisted treatment has already helped thousands of people in long-term recovery," he said.

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