The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 8, 2013

Bad ranking

The Register-Herald

BECKLEY — Once again, West Virginia is No. 1 in an undesirable category.

A report released Monday by the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) said the state leads the nation in the rate of fatal drug overdoses — a figure that is now more than six times higher than about a decade ago.

The report said that there were 28.9 deaths per every 100,000 people in West Virginia in 2010; in 1999, that number was 4.1.

But really, who is surprised?

We’ve known for several years now that prescription drug abuse has latched on to thousands of southern West Virginians with its nasty claws and most just can’t shake loose. Seldom does a day go by that there isn’t a report of a crime related to the drug problem. Grand jury reports from all counties are top-heavy with the names of those indicted for drug crimes.

While the drug abuse problem is worse by far in West Virginia, it is obvious the issue isn’t bound by state borders. TFAH says that nationally, fatal overdose rates have doubled in 29 states since 1999, quadrupled in four of those states and tripled in 10 more.

Fatal overdoes also exceed deaths from motor vehicle-related deaths in 29 states and the District of Columbia, while deaths from overdoses of prescription pills now outnumber those from cocaine and heroin combined.

Misuse and abuse of prescription painkillers costs the nation an estimated $53.4 billion in lost productivity, medical and criminal justice costs.

Monday’s report seems to scream, not only for West Virginia, but for most of the United States as well, to work harder at ways to aid addicts in getting clean — or not becoming addicted in the first place.

Among those are educating the public — the earlier in life the better — to understand the risks of prescription drug abuse. Prescription drugs may be legal, but it makes them no less addictive.

Perhaps most effective are long-term treatment programs for those addicted. Some West Virginia county prosecutors are, with some success, trading jail time for enrollment in a treatment program. Treatment in an early stage of addiction is necessary, as well. TFAH says only one in 10 people with a substance abuse disorder receives treatment.

Treatment facilities are where West Virginia should be concentrating its focus and its funds.

We hope, too, that West Virginia law enforcement, prosecutors and judges are reaching out to other states who have severe problems with illegal prescription drug use. According to TFAH, New Mexico, at 23.8 fatal overdoses, and Kentucky at 23.6, are just behind West Virginia in the rankings.

A big part of the solution would be understanding why so many who become addicts take the first pill that starts them on the downward slide. If we figure that out, it could be half of the battle — knowing how to  stop it before it gets started.

The state with the lowest fatal overdose rate is North Dakota at 3.4 deaths per 100,000 people. Maybe some answers could be found there as to how its residents keep off of the drugs.

There are as many problems in this nation as there are people. But prescription abuse is one that requires the focus of everyone in seeking ways to stop it.