Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

Painkiller Abuse Epidemic Awaits a Place on U.S. Party Platforms

  • Washington strategist on quest to put opioids on 2016 agenda
  • Republicans, Democrats drafting platforms before conventions

Mike Smith’s sister died after an overdose of prescription painkillers, and the drugs derailed his brother’s future. Now he’s trying to thrust the issue of America’s opioid epidemic into a presidential campaign that is already one of the most divisive in U.S. history.

The Washington public relations strategist is one of many ordinary Americans seeking to shape the Democratic and Republican party platforms, documents that amount to a governing agenda for the next president.

“It’s setting precedent. It’s codifying a position. And it’s the opportunity to be heard,” said Smith, the chief executive officer of GreenSmith Public Affairs. “This is three lines in a health-care policy platform statement. That’s what I’m looking for: three sentences.”

His quest opens a window into the process of developing the platforms, documents that are little noticed by most voters but represent the closest thing to a promise the electorate can expect. The platforms don’t bind the candidates to act but they’ve still taken on outsize importance this year as both parties try to come together after divisive primaries.

“For the party, they matter because they bring consensus,” said Gayle Alberda, an assistant professor of political science at Fairfield University in Connecticut, said of platforms. “It’s a time when activists and the political elite can come together and create a document that tells the public what they stand for.”

Winning a mention of the opioid epidemic, which killed about 28,000 Americans in 2014, might not be too tough a goal were it not for the thousands of other people who want a few sentences of their own in the platforms on subjects from health care to criminal justice.

Medicare, Trade

Smith, 57, made his pitch directly to Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other party officials at a Washington hotel one day this spring.

After submitting his proposal online, Smith spent a long afternoon listening to testimony from Democratic luminaries including former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder, who wanted language on overhauling U.S. criminal sentences. At the meeting, Smith was able to talk with a staff member for the panel.

Behind the scenes, members of the committee appointed by the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, were in a dispute with those appointed by her primary challenger Bernie Sanders, who wanted language opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and endorsing an expansion of Medicare, the health program for the elderly and disabled.

Smith’s brother became addicted to opioids after a doctor prescribed them after a high school baseball injury. He was subsequently convicted twice of felony prescription-drug fraud before breaking his addiction. Smith’s sister died five years ago at age 50 of pancreatic cancer, hastened by an overdose of a prescription opioid painkiller, he said. Smith’s language, if included in the platforms, would mean both major political parties would for the first time acknowledge doctor’s prescriptions as a major contributor to the epidemic.

Four years ago, the word "opioids" appeared nowhere in either platform. But by 2014, about 2.5 million in the U.S. suffered from opioid addiction, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, and 1.9 million of them depended on prescription painkillers such as oxycodone, fentanyl or codeine. Worldwide, as many as 36 million people abuse opioids, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

While opioid prescription volume has fallen 18 percent since its peak in 2012, revenue for branded opioid drugs may not peak until 2020 at $3.2 billion, compared with $608 million in 2015, according to Bloomberg Intelligence research.

The epidemic has emerged as the focus of yet another political battle between congressional Republicans and President Barack Obama, who has sought $1.1 billion to combat opioid addiction. On July 5 he announced that doctors who treat addiction with prescription medicine would be allowed to accept more patients and that the government would conduct more than a dozen new scientific studies on opioid abuse and pain treatment.

1,000 Comments

Much of a political party’s platform carries over from election to election. Democrats, for example, are unlikely to ever remove support for abortion rights from their platform. Nor are Republicans likely to ever remove opposition to the procedure. Issues are added as they rise in the public consciousness, or removed as they’re settled. Gay rights, a plank in the 2012 Democratic platform, is mentioned only in passing in the 2016 draft document after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage across the nation in 2015.

The platforms are officially adopted by delegates to the party conventions, which begin July 17 when the Republicans meet in Cleveland. Democrats will convene in Philadelphia the following week.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised that we got over 1,000 comments,” Leah Daughtry, Democratic National Convention chief executive officer, said in an interview. People have sought Democratic platform language supporting restrictions on political donations, the restoration of voting rights for recently released criminals, and yes, acknowledging the role of prescription painkillers in the opioid epidemic, she said.

Republicans are holding public meetings on their platform this week. They received input from about half a million people over the last three years, said Audrey Scagnelli, national press secretary for the convention. It’s too early to know whether opioid abuse will get a mention, she said before this week’s meetings.

But Smith can chalk up at least one win. Democratic party leaders approved their party’s draft platform on July 9, which for the first time includes language on the epidemic.

"We must confront the epidemic of drug and alcohol addiction, specifically the opioid crisis, by vastly expanding access to treatment, supporting recovery, helping community organizations," the document reads, "and promoting better practices by prescribers."

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