A bipartisan group of legislators led by Reps. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) last Thursday introduced a bill designed to reduce the number of overdose deaths related to the use of opioid pain medications. Among other measures, the bill seeks to ramp us the use of naloxone, an opioid antagonist that quickly reverses overdoses among heroin and opioid pain reliever users.
It is aimed primarily at the rapid increase in fatal prescription opioid overdose deaths that have accompanied the massive increase in opioid pain pill prescriptions over the past decade. Since the late 1990s, roughly the time Oxycontin appeared on the scene, the number of fatal overdose deaths have jumped more than 140%, claiming more than 28,500 lives in 2009 (the latest year data is available). While overdoses from illegal drugs persist as a major public health problem, fatal overdoses from prescribed opioid pain relievers such as oxycodone account for more than 40% of all overdose deaths.
Fatal drug overdoses now exceed the number of deaths from firearms and are second only to car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death. Currently, somebody dies of a drug overdose every 14 minutes in the US.
Despite growing recognition among federal health authorities and lawmakers that overdose prevention programs employ techniques and resources that are highly effective at saving lives at low-cost to taxpayers, few federal dollars are dedicated to supporting these critical programs. A February report from the Centers for Disease Control credits overdose prevention programs with saving more than 10,000 lives since 1996.
"Local health officials and frontline workers engaged in overdose prevention are saving lives every day using straightforward, low-cost interventions. With federal support, we could be saving many more lives and spare countless families from enduring the heart wrenching, yet completely preventable, loss of a loved one," said Grant Smith, federal policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The Drug Policy Alliance applauds Congresswoman Edwards and Congresswoman Bono Mack for introducing this live-saving legislation and showing leadership on this issue in Congress."
"The SOS Act will fight a growing health crisis that is going largely unnoticed in our country," said Edwards. "Approximately 30,000 Americans die each year from drug overdoses, yet the national response to combat this ongoing crisis remains woefully inadequate. It is time that the federal government took on an active role in promoting proven treatments recommended by medical associations. I want to thank Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack for joining me in introducing the SOS Act, and I look forward to working with all my colleagues to pass this bill into law."
Local overdose prevention programs have been successfully implemented in more than 180 locations nationwide, including pioneering statewide programs in Massachusetts, New Mexico, and New York, and in major cities including Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, Pittsburg, and San Francisco. Passage of the SOS Act would make federal funds available to support these and similar programs and add new ones.
"As Americans, we rally around efforts to fight breast cancer, childhood diseases and other serious health threats. But for far too long, there have only been hushed whispers about prescription drug abuse -- now the fastest growing drug problem in America. So as the death toll from prescription drug overdoses continues to rise sharply, it's time to move this story from the obituary page to the front page where it belongs," said Bono Mack. "It's time to realize that we can't simply wish this horrific problem away. Not with more than 20,000 people a year dying from it. Not when the number of newborn babies who must be withdrawn from opiate dependence at birth has tripled in the past decade. Not when nearly one out of 4 high school seniors has used prescription painkillers. This is nothing less than a national tragedy. If 20,000 people died each year from food poisoning, Americans would demand immediate action."
The bill currently has two dozen cosponsors.