The Alarming Rise of Opioid Addiction in the Past 15 Years

Addiction has always been a disease. Opium and opium-derived drugs have always caused problems for users. Although drugs and substance abuse have been around for years, opioid addiction has only recently become the crisis it is now. According to The Guardian, every day, an average of 130 people die as a result of overdose. At least 80 of those deaths are related to opioid use. These numbers are twice what they were just 15 to 20 years ago. In some areas of the country, this death rate is nearly eight times larger than it was in 1999.1

Opioid addiction has become an epidemic. It is a cause for serious concern and immediate action by individuals, communities and government agencies.

How Has Our Understanding of Addiction Changed?

Addiction is a disease. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry … Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.”2

Studies prove that addiction is not a moral failing or specific to certain socioeconomic groups. Addiction creates real change in mental, emotional and physical health. Although stigma remains, misunderstandings about addiction and those who engage in substance abuse are beginning to give way to education, understanding and support. This does not mean the struggle against addiction is over. Opioid addiction and overdose rates continue to rise despite growing scientific knowledge and increasing availability of treatment resources.

When Did This Rise Begin?

Today’s alarming opioid addiction rates have their roots in the 1990s. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, this is when “pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers, and healthcare providers began to prescribe them at greater rates.”3 Marketing teams pushed new products. They labeled them as safe and encouraged wider use. More people began using opioids. Opioids became easier to find — both with and without a prescription. Pharmaceutical companies and illicit manufacturers began to produce more and stronger opioids.

Where Did This Rise Begin?

Appalachian townOpioid addiction is a national and global problem. Opioid addiction in America has its roots in rural communities, and these areas remain some of the hardest hit by the epidemic. Over-prescribing began in the rural Appalachia region of West Virginia and Kentucky. Individuals with physical, taxing jobs received prescriptions to help manage daily pain stemming from life and work-related injuries. Medications intended for short-term pain relief became long-term problems. However, the spread of opioid prescriptions began before the medical community noticed the related spread of addiction. By the time connections were made, addiction was a national and growing concern.

Opioid addiction is not limited to just rural areas or just cities. It is not limited to low-income families either. Opioid addiction affects a wealthier population than previous national addiction concerns and is especially associated with the white demographic. The New York Times shares, “While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.”4 But no demographic is excluded from worrying about heroin, painkillers and other drugs.

Why Should We Worry About Opioid Addiction?

Addiction is more than an individual concern. Almost everyone knows someone who struggles with substance use. Addiction is a disease that has reached epidemic levels, and it has outstripped other epidemics.

Vox shares, “In 2016 alone, drug overdoses likely killed more Americans in one year than the entire Vietnam War. In 2015, drug overdoses topped annual deaths from car crashes, gun violence and even HIV/AIDS during that epidemic’s peak in 1995.”5

Opioid addiction is a leading cause of illness and death. It taxes the physical, mental and emotional health of individuals from every walk of life. It disrupts families and communities.

Opioid addiction is alarming for other reasons as well. It has contributed to the spread of other diseases. CNN explains, “New hepatitis C virus infections in the United States nearly tripled between the years 2010 and 2015 … Infections are most frequently among young people who transition from taking prescription pills to injecting heroin, which has become cheaper and more easily available. Many — most, in some communities — people who inject drugs become infected with hepatitis C.”6

Hepatitis C is a serious disease that damages the liver. It causes nausea, pain and fever. It can be fatal. According to CNN, the CDC “reported a record number of fatalities from the virus occurred in 2014.”6 Hepatitis C often goes undiagnosed until damage has been done. When a person is actively using opioids and other drugs, it can take longer for a diagnosis. Hepatitis C and other co-occurring mental and physical health issues may go ignored. When addiction and physical health complications overlap, individuals need to receive accurate diagnoses and appropriate, comprehensive treatment. Ignoring one or both issues leads to escalating drug use and health crises.

What Can We Do About Opioid Addiction?

Addiction can be addressed at individual, community and government levels. The government can take steps to make treatment better and more accessible. Vox explains that changing Medicaid regulations would “immediately open treatment to thousands of Americans in existing facilities in all 50 states.”5 The government can also enforce rules that require other insurers to cover mental and physical care equally. Monitoring programs can limit the number of prescriptions written. Funding research would allow for more and better options for non-opioid pain management. Courts can encourage treatment rather than punishment for drug-related crimes. Parity laws already help ensure equal coverage for mental and physical healthcare, but the government can do more to integrate these two fields of medicine. This allows for seamless transitions and connections between hospital stays, addiction treatment, therapy and more.

Communities can create grassroots campaigns that encourage change at the government level. Communities can identify local problems and welcome programs, treatment providers and facilities that address those issues. Addiction is a national epidemic. This does not mean it looks exactly the same from place to place or person to person. Communities can increase awareness at home and at large. They can host events to support recovery and decrease stigma. Awareness helps people understand risk factors. It limits harm and encourages recovery. Better understanding of addiction helps people act early if problems do develop. Small changes in attitude can make a big difference for those otherwise too unsure or scared to ask for help.

Individuals can also seek help for themselves or loved ones. Effective, comprehensive treatment programs are available to help. These programs offer integrated care for mental, physical and emotional health. They understand the importance of personalized treatment plans and long-term aftercare. If a friend or family member is trapped by opioid addiction, our admissions coordinators at The Oaks can help answer your questions about treatment options. Everyone can do their part to combat the alarming rise of opioid addiction.


1. Popovich, Nadja. “A Deadly Crisis: Mapping the Spread of America’s Drug Overdose Epidemic.” The Guardian, May 25, 2016, Accessed August 3, 2017.
2. “Definition of Addiction.” American Society of Addiction Medicine, April 19, 2011, Accessed August 5, 2017.
3. “Opioid Crisis.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, June 2017, Accessed August 4, 2017.
4. Seelye, Katharine. “In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs.” The New York Times, October 30, 2015, Accessed August 5, 2017.
5. Lopez, German. “Trump’s Opioid Epidemic Commission Wants the President to Declare a State of Emergency.” Vox, July 31, 2017, Accessed August 3, 2017.
6. Scutti, Susan. “New Hepatitis C Infections Triple Due to Opioid Epidemic.”, May 11, 2017, Accessed August 4, 2017.

By Alanna Hilbink

Articles posted here are primarily educational and may not directly reflect the offerings at The Oaks. For more specific information on programs at The Oaks, contact us today.