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Faye Flam

Doctors Paved the Road to Hell With Pain Pills

“We created this epidemic and we have to be responsible to overturn it.”


Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

Now that deaths from opioid overdose exceed those from car crashes, the medical community has come to recognize an error of historic proportions. In 2014, U.S. doctors wrote 245 million prescriptions for Vicodin, OxyContin and other painkillers in the highly addictive family of opium derivatives known as opioids. That practice spares many patients from pain following accidents or surgery, but the cost is more than 20,000 deaths a year.

In the past, drug addiction was viewed more as criminal behavior than as a medical condition, said Nora Volkow, who heads the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “But what we are facing now is the responsibility of the health care system,” she said. “We created this epidemic, and we have to be responsible to overturn it.”