Since I wrote about the Sackler family for TRP two weeks ago, they have stayed in the news. Lawsuits across the country continue to reveal the depth of the deception perpetrated by Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company long owned and operated by the family.
Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies are now experiencing the legal backlash that cigarette companies experienced in the nineties.
But as we started to explore last week, focusing only on pharmaceutical companies can hurt chronic pain patients who lose access to appropriate medication and fails to understand the complexity of addiction.
To understand this better, we can look at the last spike in opioid overdoses among American’s. But while it happened to Americans, it wasn’t in America. It was in Vietnam.
A 1974 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that 43 percent of returning soldiers reported having used narcotics (mostly heroin) while in Vietnam and 20 percent developed a full-blown addiction.
The U.S. government prepared for a surge of addicted service members, who they anticipated would return with both their addictions and their supply. But that 1974 study found something that the researchers had never seen before. Ten months after returning home, nearly all the soldiers they interviewed and on whom they conducted urine analysis simply returned to whatever their previous drug use was (or wasn’t) before they left for Vietnam.
Some 20 percent of members of the armed forces reported being addicted in Vietnam, but only 1 percent were addicted upon their return to the United States. The study authors wrote, “There have been no studies of addict populations in this country that show anything like the 95 percent remission rate after ten months, which is what a drop from 20 percent addicted while in Vietnam to 1 percent after Vietnam suggests.”
While service members were in Vietnam, nothing the government tried to help people kick their addictions seemed to work. Once they returned, the problem resolved without significant intervention.
Exposure to a substance alone, whether it is an opioid, alcohol or nicotine alone does not immediately cause addiction. Addiction is more complicated than that. Another factor that needs to examine is the environment a person is in.
All of us, no matter who we are, when environments of high stress, trauma, ongoing pain, and social dislocation, become more susceptible to addiction. And, if you were a service member who was no longer sure of the meaning or purpose of the war you were in, these problems are only exacerbated.
Yes, addiction can lead to the devastating consequences of losing a job, loved ones and a stable home. But all of these things are also what can help people overcome addictions. While we will need public policy solutions that directly address the overdose crisis in all it’s forms and provides evidence-based treatment for those who need it, we also need to keep advocating for things like universal health care, a living wage, and fair housing policies.
Safe communities, meaningful and well-paying work, and opportunities for the future all help create environments where addictions are less likely to thrive. Whether your passion is criminal justice reform and fighting inequality, your work for a more just and equitable society is work that will help us reverse the tide of overdoses.