It should come as no surprise that more than half of all Americans (57%) believe that pharmaceutical companies should be held responsible in some way for the opioid epidemic sweeping America. In fact, more than 70% say that drug companies should have to pay the cost of addiction treatment in addition to covering the cost of naloxone, which is a drug used to revive patients who have overdosed. Pharmaceutical companies have, of course, profited hugely from the opioid epidemic and may have even been a contributing factor in causing it. But to place the blame solely at their feet does little to nothing to solve the actual problem.

WHAT IS THE REAL PROBLEM?

In 1971, it was estimated that roughly 15% of all troops stationed in Viet Nam were heroine addicts. Heroine is another opioid similar to the painkillers fueling the current epidemic. At the time, the US government feared the outcome of that many opioid addicts returning to the US. In response, they instituted a policy named “Operation Golden Flow” in which US soldiers could not return to the US until they were able to deliver a clean urine sample. Soldiers that could not were sent to detox until they could.

Needless to say, it would seem inevitable that once the addicted soldiers returned to the US, they would simply fall right back into old habits. Shockingly, only 5% of all of those treated relapsed within a year and only 12% relapsed, even briefly, within three years. What was even more astonishing was that according to the Department of Health and Human Services as many as 78% of those admitted for heroin use had been in treatment at least once before.

WHAT CHANGED?

Studies of this phenomena have made one thing clear. Environment and life circumstance play an incredibly strong role in addiction. During the Viet Nam war, soldiers were exposed to a potent combination of boredom and the sudden atrocious horror that resulted in a kind of psychological whiplash. Once they returned to the more mundane, stable and steady rhythm of life in the US, they simply lost their need to numb the psychological pain created by their environment.

While there is no doubt that pharmaceutical companies played a significant role in supplying the epidemic, the truth is, until we address the underlying cause of the epidemic, there is likely to be no relief from it.