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Watch Now: The Opioid Epidemic in America

Each day, 46 people in the United States die from a fatal overdose of opiates or painkillers – more than one person per hour. Misusing prescription opioids leads to 1,000 people a day being treated in emergency departments, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

And in 2014, the number of fatal overdoses, including prescription opioid pain relievers [1] and heroin [2], claimed more than 28,000 lives, contributing to lethal drug overdoses being the No. 1 cause of accidental deaths in the U.S. for the first time, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control reports.

Paul E. Keck Jr., M.D., a renowned professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, shared these and other shocking statistics at the most recent Baptist Health South Florida Speaker Series: Thought Leaders in Medicine held in Coral Gables, Fla.


(VIDEO: Dr. Paul E. Keck Jr., a leading psychiatrist, behavioral neuroscientist, pharmacological expert and addiction treatment center expert, addresses the deadly trend of opioid and heroin abuse and addiction and what can be done about it.)

“While Americans make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, we consume 80 percent of the global opioid supply,” Dr. Keck said during his “Opiod Epidemic in America” presentation. “We’re not using these drugs wisely, and the consequences are deadly.”

Opioid Use in America

Other statistics Dr. Keck shared include:

Dangers of Mixing Pain Pills and Heroin

About 467,000 people in the U.S. are currently addicted to heroin, according to a 2014 National Institute on Drug Abuse report. Tighter regulations for doctors and pharmacies, along with crackdowns and closings of “pill mills,” have contributed to the epidemic, Dr. Keck explained.

Florida, in particular, has seen a surge in heroin deaths, he said, citing a recent Miami Herald article.  In 2015, there were six times more deaths from the illegal drug than in 2007, it reported.

“When Americans are no longer able to get the prescriptions they need to maintain their opioid habit, they are turning to a cheap, dangerous and illegal – but readily available alternative – heroin,” he said.

Once misuse and overuse of opioids change the physiological make up of the brain, the person becomes addicted and seeks more narcotics at the least possible price. That’s when mixing commonly prescribed opiates, such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Percoset, with heroin can be deadly.

“Opioids have a narrow therapeutic index. A lethal dose is not much higher than a prescription dose,” Dr. Keck said. “When combined with heroin, these drugs have powerful central nervous system affects, and it can become hard to stop using them.”

Dr. Keck also informed the audience about another alarming trend in the U.S. – the increase in heroin use by adolescents. He said heroin usage by children ages 12-17 skyrocketed 200 percent between 2005 and 2012, resulting in a devastating 350 percent increase in overdoses from the dangerous drug.

Addiction Treatment and Recovery

David Vittoria, assistant vice president at South Miami Hospital’s Addiction Treatment & Recovery Center [3], thanked Dr. Keck for leading a “very important conversation.” He added perspective about addiction’s tremendous cost to employers.

“The cost of drug abuse and addiction to businesses in the U.S. exceeded $215 billion last year,” Mr. Vittoria said. “The numbers are sobering and so widespread that they likely resonate with everyone in this room.”

At the conclusion of his presentation Dr. Keck said, “The good news is that addiction is treatable.”

John Eustace, M.D., [4]medical director of South Miami Hospital’s Addiction Treatment & Recovery Center, joined the conversation and commented about solutions to the problem.

“Instead of labeling addiction as weak, stupid or failure, we need more compassion and empathy from doctors and society,” Dr. Eustace said. “Most of the time the addiction is covering up real emotional pain. Addiction is a relapsing disease, much like diabetes or heart disease that needs help.”

Made possible through the generosity of Al and Janie Nahmad, the speaker series “sparks important dialogue that we hope will help propel our industry forward and make a lasting, positive impact on the community,” according to Brian E. Keeley, president and chief executive officer of Baptist Health South Florida.

Dr. Keck is a leading researcher in psychopharmacy and has authored more than 525 scientific papers in leading medical journals. Also an author of six scientific books, Dr. Keck has been the seventh most cited scientist in the world on issues of psychiatry and psychology in the last 10 years. He has received numerous awards for his work, including the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill; and the Philip Isenberg Teaching Award from Harvard Medical School.