On April 2, Kathleen Errico of Haverhill woke up at 3:45a.m. To find that her 23-year-old daughter, Kelsey Endicott, had lost her life due to a heroin overdose. Kelsey leaves behind her family and a son, whose second birthday is soon approaching. Ms. Errico shares that her daughter, “turned to drugs to make her feel normal,” and that Kelsey wasn’t aware of how heroin, “would devastate her family and tear it apart, how it would take her job and leave her penniless, or how it would steal her son from her arms.” Kelsey’s son now lives with Ms. Errico (MacQuarrie and Farragher). Unfortunately, cases such as Kelsey’s are becoming increasingly common in Massachusetts, calling for a much-needed resolution to the opioid epidemic.
Drugs contributing to the opioid epidemic include heroin as well as prescription painkillers such as morphine, hydrocodone, codeine, oxycodone, and fentanyl (“Opioid Addiction”). In Massachusetts, the number of opioid-related hospital visits has roughly doubled from 2007 to 2014, with 31,000 visits in 2007 rising to a staggering 57,000 visits in 2014 (Freyer). A notable increase can also be seen in the number of opioid-related fatalities in the state. The year 2000 ended with a total of 338 unintentional fatal opioid overdoses in Massachusetts (“United States”). The number of opioid-related deaths has continued to rise each year with 561 fatalities in 2008, 603 fatalities in 2011, 668 fatalities in 2012, 911 fatalities in 2013, and 1,099 fatalities in 2014 (“United States”). This data represents a 21% increase in the number of unintentional fatal opioid overdoses from the year 2013 to 2014, and a 65% increase from 2012 to 2014 (“United States”). The increase in the number of opioid-related deaths in recent years has also shown to be more prevalent in certain areas of the state. Freyer shares, “The Berkshires, Southeastern Massachusetts, and the Lawrence-Lowell area have the highest concentrations of residents who visited the hospital with opioid-related problems.” All age groups are affected by opioid abuse and it has been found that those earning less that $50,000 a year are more apt to be affected (Freyer). The amount of opioid medications prescribed as well as the immense availability of heroin is driving this epidemic.
Opioid painkillers prescribed by physicians have shown to contribute to the opioid epidemic. While opioids were once only regularly prescribed to patients battling cancer and other terminal illnesses, there has been an increase in use of opioids to treat musculoskeletal problems, sciatica, and low-back pain (Friedman). With a rise in the number of conditions using painkillers to combat pain, more and more opioid prescriptions are being distributed to patients. In fact, the medical use of opioids has multiplied by ten in the past twenty years, with about half of all prescriptions prescribed by pain specialists now being opioid pain relievers (Friedman). Addiction to these medications has become increasingly more common due in part to the immense amount of opioids that are in circulation throughout the public. In the United States, an estimated 259 million opioid prescriptions were written in 2012, which would allow every American adult a separate bottle of medication (“Opioid Addiction”). Along with the massive amount of opioid prescriptions that are being prescribed, the abundant availability of heroin is driving this epidemic. Heroin is both easily obtained and is inexpensive (Freyer). When the supply of an opioid painkiller is cut short, heroin can become a cheaper alternative for someone struggling with opioid addiction. Both the availability of heroin and the amount of opioid painkillers being distributed can be to blame for driving this epidemic.
As seen in the number of opioid-related deaths in recent years, more and more families are now being affected by opioid abuse. Families are being torn apart while individuals are losing their lives to opioid overdoses. Studies have shown that those who are addicted to opioids live approximately fifteen years less than people who are not addicted to the painkillers (“Findings of Opioid Task Force”). In addition to this, individuals addicted to opioids are at a higher risk for developing liver disease, HIV infection, and Hepatitis C (“Findings of Opioid Task Force”). Effects of opioid abuse have also been observed to affect children. Freyer shares that in Massachusetts, “The rate of babies born dependent on opioids increased more than fivefold from 2004 to 2013, and in 2009 was 3 times the national average.” These numbers will continue to rise if steps are not taken to try and prevent the progression of this epidemic.
While treatment for opioid abuse is extremely important, Massachusetts has one of the most effective substance abuse treatment systems in the United States (“Findings of the Opioid Task Force”). With the numbers of opioid-related deaths continuing to rise each year, focusing on the prevention of opioid abuse would have the most beneficial effect on solving the epidemic. The use of a mass media campaign focusing on the dangers of opioid abuse would effectively reduce the numbers of opioid-related hospital visits and fatalities in the state by educating the public on the risks and dangers associated with the misuse of opioid pain relievers.
Mass media campaigns essentially work by repeatedly exposing specific messages to large populations by means of radio, television, billboards, magazines, and newspapers (Wakefield, Loken, and Hornik). Constant exposure to specific messages generates responses that can ultimately lead to positive change. By frequently addressing specific messages to viewers, discussion of the particular topic becomes more common, which can lead to changes in behavior (Wakefield, Loken, and Hornik). Many campaigns also choose to involve content that produces an emotional response for its viewers (Wakefield, Loken, and Hornik). In regards to the opioid epidemic, emotional responses could be obtained by sharing stories of fatal opioid overdoses from family members of those who have lost their lives due to opioid abuse. Constantly airing these stories in the form of brief commercials or other forms of media would spark conversation throughout communities, bringing more attention to the issue. In addition to this, revealing facts and statistics relating to the growth of the epidemic would put an emphasis on the severity of opioid abuse in Massachusetts. The attention and conversation drawn from these commercials would ultimately lead to a change in the misuse of opioids. A mass media campaign regarding the dangers of opioids would effectively reduce opioid-related hospital visits and fatalities in Massachusetts as it has been proven to be effective in other scenarios.
The use of mass media campaigns has shown to be effective in regard to the decline of drinking and driving fatalities in the United States. In 1982, the number of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities was about 21,000 people, which accounted for around fifty percent of all motor vehicle deaths that year (Green). During this time, the Advertising Council, a company that produces public service advertising, began creating advertisements that aimed to reduce drinking and driving rates (Green). The 1990s brought phrases from “Drinking and Driving Can Kill a Friendship” to “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” (Green). Messages such as these proved to be effective amongst the public. In 1999, there were approximately 12,500 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities, which was only about thirty percent of motor vehicle fatalities in that year (Green). The use of media campaigning continued throughout the 2000s with a campaign aimed at buzzed driving. Targeting men aged 21-34, the phrase “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” helped contribute to bringing the number of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities to less than 11,000 in 2009 (Green). The use of media campaigning has been proven to effectively reduce the number of drinking and driving fatalities in the United States.
The use of mass media campaigns has also shown to contribute to the declining use of cigarettes in the United States. In 1965, a little over forty-two percent of adults smoked cigarettes in the U.S. (“Trends in Current Cigarette Smoking”). The introduction of antismoking campaigns began focusing on the benefits of quitting, emphasized the risks of smoking, and provided a telephone support line for anyone having difficulty while quitting (Wakefield, Loken, and Hornik). These media campaigns helped contribute to the decline of smoking among adults in the U.S. to around twenty-three percent in 1999 (“Trends in Current Cigarette Smoking”). In recent years, a more aggressive approach was taken to combat cigarette use among Americans. In 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) managed the campaign “Tips from Former Smokers,” which aimed to encourage smokers to quit smoking (Liss). The campaign created powerful emotional responses among many viewers. The ads featured tips from former smokers, whose lives have been dramatically affected by smoking. Despite only lasting for three months, this campaign drove over 1.6 million smokers to try to quit smoking and successfully helped over 100,000 individuals do so (Liss). The use of mass media campaigns in recent years has undoubtedly contributed to the reduction of smoking among adults in the United States to just under eighteen percent in 2013 (“Trends in Current Cigarette Smoking”).
The impact of mass media campaigns has also been observed in Australia. A study in Australia assessed the effectiveness of the media campaign “SunSmart” in regard to the prevention of skin cancer (Wakefield, Loken, and Hornik). The company encourages and promotes the wearing of protective clothing, the use of sunscreen, and the avoidance of direct sunlight during high ultraviolet periods (Wakefield, Loken, and Hornik). Various forms of advertising were used throughout the campaign. The fifteen-year study found that there was a reduction in the prevalence of melanoma in the areas exposed to the campaign, especially among young individuals (Wakefield, Loken, and Hornik). This fifteen-year study in Australia displays the great influence that media campaigns are capable of.
While mass media campaigns have proven to be effective in producing positive changes in society, some people would argue that they take years to produce any significant change. Although media campaigns can in fact take time to result in substantial change, the overall effect that a mass media campaign would have on the opioid epidemic would be worthwhile. With the continued efforts of various treatment facilities for opioid abuse in Massachusetts, the use of media campaigning would function to educate the public on the dangers of opioid misuse and would consequently reduce the negative effects that opioid abuse has on society.
One alternative solution to preventing opioid abuse in Massachusetts is limiting the amount of opioid painkillers prescribed to patients. Recently, an opioid bill has been passed in Massachusetts that aims to prevent the misuse of opioid painkillers. This bill limits a seven-day supply of medication for initial opioid prescriptions in the state (Miller). By doing so, the bill would help decrease the number of opioid painkillers in circulation throughout the public. A decrease in availability of opioids would help to prevent the start of opioid abuse among individuals. Although the bill could reduce the start of opioid abuse, it would not prevent those who are already addicted to opioids from seeking more medication. Individuals that are already addicted to opioids may turn to heroin when supplies of other opioid painkillers are cut short. A mass media campaign would better serve in preventing opioid abuse, as it would target those already affected by opioid abuse, those at risk for being affected, and the general public.