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As a nation, we are in the throes of a very serious and incredibly devastating opioid epidemic.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 115 Americans die from an opioid overdose each day. In fact, drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 – with opioid-related overdoses contributing to over two-thirds of these deaths.

The Washington Post reported that the opioid epidemic lowered Americans’ overall life expectancy in 2016 for the second year in a row.

Today, policymakers, federal agencies and the medical establishment are in an all-out dash to try and get the use and prescription of opioids under control – with the overall hope of significantly lowering addictions and deaths by opioid use.

While many attribute the opioid crisis to a surge in prescription pain medication around the early 2000s, opioid abuse and addiction – including heroin addiction – didn’t just appear out of the blue.

To understand what opioid prescription looks like today, we must first examine how we got here.

The Civil War, the Bayer Co. and Opioids

War and pain walk hand-in-hand. Doctors would treat the injuries Civil War veterans sustained in battle with morphine. In turn, veterans became addicted to it. Some sources state that opioids were abused long before the Civil War even started, though.

In 1898, the German drug company, Bayer Co., began producing heroin and commercialized aspirin and heroin as effective pain relievers and cough, cold and pain medication. Heroin was considered the wonder drug, and as word of its effects spread, so did drug addictions.

Because of the abuse and addiction heroin caused, doctors stopped treating patients with it around the 1920s, and it officially became illegal in 1924.

World War II and Opioids

As American soldiers returned from the war, doctors helped soldiers manage severe pain with opioids. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, nerve block clinics were established in the 1950s and 1960s to treat veterans who suffered from severe, chronic pain with opioids. This was an effective route that avoided surgery.

The Resurgence of Opioid Use and Prescriptions

Although opioids were still in use as a result of war-associated pain and injuries, it wasn’t until the 1970s that opioid drug use really took off. So much so that President Ford ordered a task force to understand the rampant use. As a result, U.S. Customs and the Drug Enforcement Administration were told to switch their focus from cocaine and marijuana traffickers to heroin traffickers.

Doctors, however, were still hesitant to prescribe opioid pain medications. Those cautions quickly dissipated when Vicodin and Percocet hit the market in the late-1970s. Then, in 1980, a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine stated that addiction is rare if a patient has no history of addiction.

After that letter, other studies stated that opioids can be safe and a more humane alternative to treating pain. Additionally, there was a push in the medical community to make pain treatment a priority. All this set the stage for a spike in opioid prescriptions moving into the 1990s.

Catching Fire: How the 1990’s Fueled Our Reality Today

Opioid prescriptions hit an all-time high when OxyContin, tested as a long-term painkiller in 1994, entered the market in 1996. According to market research firm IMS Health, opioid prescriptions went from roughly 79 million in the early 1990’s to 94 million in 1996.

The swell didn’t stop there. Purdue Pharma, the manufacturers of OxyContin, released a promotional video, showing how six people who lived with chronic pain ‘got their lives back’ by taking OxyContin. The video was most widely viewed in doctors’ waiting rooms.

A year later, opioid prescriptions skyrocketed to 116 million in 1999 and 126 million in 2000.

Opioid Prescription in the Early 2000s and Today

In 2001, the Joint Commission – a nonprofit organization that sets medical standards and accredits clinics, hospitals and medical centers – established a new standard that “pain is assessed in all patients,” where doctors were to thoroughly assess a patient’s pain levels.
Inconsistently, however, the Joint Commission backed a book for doctors in 2000 that featured studies that alleged there is no evidence that opioids are the source of a person’s addiction. Ironically enough, this book was sponsored by Purdue Pharma.

Opioid prescriptions peaked at 282 million in 2012, and significant efforts were put into action to course correct all the damage that had been done, including:

  • Purdue Pharma rereleasing a reformed version of OxyContin as an abuse deterrent pain management option in 2010. However, it’s worth noting that the OxyContin reformulation didn’t change how addictive the drug was and led to an increase in heroin usage.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention releasing the first national guidelines for prescribing opioids
  • The federal government making strict prescribing rules for hydrocodone when combined with a second analgesic

Still, overdoses and deaths from opioids claimed the lives of 64,000 Americans in 2016. While opioid prescriptions did decline to 236 million in 2016, a large majority of addicts found their way to heroin and diverted the dwindling prescription issue.

Today, opioid prescriptions are on the decline and it is with great hope that this effort prevents more Americans from becoming addicts to opioids.

For those still addicted to opioid pain pills or heroin, detoxification and recovery can remove you from the never-ending cycle and abuse that is crippling and threatening your life. There is hope. Your life can be restored.

Opioid Drug Treatment at Covenant Hills

As the opioid crisis wages on, your participation does not have to follow suit. At Covenant Hills, your addiction stops for good. It is our utmost mission to help you return to the person you were made to be. Through a faith-based addiction rehab program, you can center your mind, revive your body and awaken your soul. Put an end to your epidemic. Discover Covenant Hills and learn more about our drug treatment programs, or contact us for a free and confidential assessment.


1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Opioid Overdose Crisis. Accessed May 4, 2018.
2. The Washington Post. Fueled by drug crisis, U.S. life expectancy declines for a second straight year. Accessed may 3, 2018.
3. The Journal of the American Medical Association. A capsule history of pain management. Accessed May 3, 2018.
4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. America’s Addiction to Opioids: Heroin and Prescription Drug Abuse. Accessed May 4, 2018.
5. Katz, Josh. The New York Times. Drug Deaths in America Are Rising Faster Than Ever. Accessed May 4, 2018.
6. Stobbe, Mike. The Chicago Tribune. Today’s opioid crisis shares chilling similarities with past drug epidemics. Accessed May 4, 2018.
7. The History of Heroin. Accessed May 5, 2018.
8. Moghe. Sonia. CNN. Opioid history: From ‘wonder drug’ to abuse epidemic. Accessed May 4, 2018.