Tennessee Sets New Record For Drug Overdose Deaths

By Britni de la Cretaz 11/17/16

In 2015, over 7 million opioid prescriptions were doled out in the state. 

Tennessee Sets New Record For Drug Overdose Deaths

The Tennessee Department of Health released data this week showing 1,451 deaths last year that were attributed to drug overdose—more people than were killed in car accidents. Nearly 72% of those deaths involved opiates.

In Tennessee, like in many other states, large numbers of people who become addicted to heroin or other opiates begin by using prescription medications that they are either prescribed themselves from a doctor, or given by family or friends.

"People taking a Percocet from a friend or relative are not thinking, 'One day I might end up on heroin.' We need to make people aware these are connected,” Dr. David Reagan, chief medical officer of the Tennessee Department of Health, told The Tennessean in April.

Earlier this year, The Tennessean reported that “Tennessee has the second highest rate of prescriptions per person, behind only West Virginia.” As a result, officials have been taking a two-pronged approach to reducing opiate addiction in their state. They want to 1) reduce the number of pills in medicine cabinets by reducing the number of prescriptions written for these drugs, and 2) increase awareness about the dangers of prescription narcotics.

And while the state set up a provider database that healthcare providers can check to see what controlled substances a person is prescribed before writing a prescription for an opiate painkiller, sources report that doctors are not consistently using it. Despite this database, the overdose rate in Tennessee continues to climb.

For many people who begin using prescription drugs, they end up using heroin. A result of the high numbers of intravenous drug use in Tennessee, as well as Kentucky and West Virginia, has been a spike in both hepatitis B (HBV) and hepatitis C (HCV): in those states, cases of HBV increased 114% between 2009 and 2013, while HCV cases more than tripled between 2006 and 2012.

The state has been turning to the faith community for solutions, looking to the more than 12,000 churches located in all 95 counties to help raise awareness and offer substance use disorder services.

“Strategically, churches and faith-based organizations are located in all 95 counties. They're the only single entity that we have that's located from Memphis to Mountain City,” Monty Burks of the Tennessee Department of Substance Abuse Services told WCYB in August. With the issue of drug addiction being so far-reaching, state officials see churches as a resource that could help reach large numbers of residents, even those in the most rural and isolated parts of the state.

Health officials are also encouraging people who may have leftover pills from a prescription to take them to police stations to turn them in. They're also working to turn some pharmacies into drop-off points in the hopes that they can get some of the pills off the streets and limit access to them at the entry point to addiction: people’s medicine cabinets.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
britni headshot.png

Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.