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Tom Tarter: Combating the opioid crisis

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The opioid epidemic has had a devastating effect on our society. More Americans died of drug overdose in both 2017 and 2018 than in the Vietnam War. President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national health emergency in late 2017, as nearly every American community has been touched in some way by the crisis.

Lawmakers, law enforcement, doctors, and insurers have rightfully taken steps to address the overuse of prescription opioids. Pharmaceutical companies are facing criminal and civil lawsuits.

But to really save lives, we need a comprehensive approach that first recognizes that the opioid epidemic is largely being fueled by synthetic opioids smuggled into our country through the mail and through our border.

President Trump is right – the opioid epidemic is a true emergency. As a practicing physician in Central Illinois, I see the effects of the crisis first-hand. Too many lives have been lost to addiction and senseless overdoses.

The federal government and most states have implemented policies to tackle prescription drugs, and those have made an impact. As a physician, I can attest that most doctors have changed the way they prescribe pain medication since the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released new guidelines to address the epidemic. In fact, according to the CDC, opioid prescribing is at an 18-year low, and the rate of prescribing opioids has continually declined since 2011. The annual growth rate of prescription opioid overdose deaths declined from 4.8% between 2010 to 2016 to just 0.1% in 2017. Meanwhile, illegal synthetic opioid deaths increased 46.6% in one year alone from 2016 to 2017, and deaths from the synthetic opioid fentanyl increased by 520% in recent years.

Nationally, we must do more to encourage common sense solutions to the crisis. Lawmakers and public officials should focus on treatment-based programs, which have seen tremendous success. Currently, fewer than one in ten Americans with a substance abuse disorder receive treatment.  

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Department of Homeland Security report that fentanyl and counterfeit opioids are flooding the United States from Mexico and China and are fueling the opioid crisis. These drugs are either shipped into the country directly from China and other nations, or transported to Mexico and smuggled across our southern border.

The CDC has found that illegally manufactured fentanyl and its analogs are responsible for 75 percent of all overdose deaths. Increased technology at our borders and other points of entry, as well as detection of shipments and mail, can reduce the amount of these potent, lethal drugs from entering our country.

Millions of Americans currently take opioids to manage long-term pain. Many of them have chronic pain associated with complex medical conditions such as cancer and injuries. We must provide solutions for these patients, and ensure that they are not pushed to the black market to obtain prescription drugs from third parties or, even worse, counterfeit pills smuggled by drug cartels and stamped to look like a legitimate prescription drug.

Most of the active ingredients in American pharmaceuticals are produced in China. Approximately 40 percent of global pharmaceutical output is from China. Most of the fentanyl is produced in China, and despite a promise to make it a controlled substance, China has failed to act. As many other scholars have recommended, we should encourage China’s cooperation by looking elsewhere for pharmaceuticals, like India, and work with our allies to pressure China.

Dr. Tom Tarter is a urologic oncologist who works for Cancer Care Specialists of Illinois, which serves patients in central and southern Illinois. Dr. Tarter oversees Urologic Oncology services at the Cancer Care Center of Decatur. The author is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate from Illinois


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