Vice Launches Tonic Digital Health Channel with Hep C Documentary

By Dorri Olds 11/28/16

Tonic will be a one-stop digital shop for health-related topics including HIV/AIDS, mental illness, healthcare and the opioid-crisis. 

Vice Launches Tonic Digital Health Channel with Hep C Documentary
Photo via VICE/YouTube

“You can live 40 days without food, six without water, but only seconds without hope,” said Tommy, a user in the documentary Hepatitis Country: Inside America’s Opioid-Fueled Epidemic. The film aired on Tonic, a new website and digital video channel from Vice

The doc is the first of Tonic’s video specials and takes place in the poverty-stricken town of Huntington, West Virginia. The documentary opens with a stark reminder across the screen: Approximately 3.5 million people in the U.S. are estimated to be living with a hepatitis C infection; most do not know they are infected.

Next, we watch a close-up of hands holding a spoon and needle, fixing a shot of heroin. “Before shooting a needle, a lot goes through my mind,” says a disembodied female voice. “If they have hep C or not, if they’re truthful and tell me if they have it or they don’t [but] getting that high is more overwhelming than thinking about if it could be a dirty needle.”

We find out that the voice belongs to beautiful, young Amber. We watch helplessly as she plunges the syringe into her arm.

In West Virginia, the rate of hepatitis C infection is nearly five times higher than the national average and most are unaware they’re infected.

“Health affects everyone,” the editor-in-chief of Tonic, Kate Lowenstein, told The Fix in an exclusive interview. “It touches every part of our lives and in so many different ways.”

Lowenstein, previously from Prevention magazine, said, “The site will cover every aspect of our healthcare system, how people relate to doctors, health policies, insurance plans.”

Vice has been covering health for a long time but Lowenstein said, “With launching Tonic, we have one place for all of it. We’ll be doing a lot of stories about addiction. We’ll cover topics that relate to the opioid crisis, HIV/AIDS, mental illness, depression, anxiety, and how it relates to addiction.” 

They already have many stories underway and since our interview, there are a handful of new videos to watch including "Synthetic Drug Revolution" and "From Rehab to a Body Bag: Dying for Treatment." 

“We are very interested in the science of addiction,” said Lowenstein. “In all of our health coverage we will be coming back to the scientific aspect. People also have a lot of questions about what is going to happen to their health insurance; how much Trump will change Obamacare. There’s a lot of concern about things changing and if it will be harder to get coverage.”

In Hepatitis Country, Tommy said, “I’m 31 years old but I feel and act like I’m 60. I was raised in church. Church is a big thing around here—Bible Belt. I had a great childhood. I dated a girl throughout high school. I cared for her deeply. Her leaving really, looking back, really impacted my drug use severely. I found out by using, [heroin] took the pain away, that alcohol didn’t do.”

Amber’s boyfriend Anthony said, “I’ve been doing heroin for at least 10 years. The first time I did it, I was just trying to escape my problems at the time and that’s why I tried it…Ever since then, I've been hooked.”

The couple has been together for a year and a half. Anthony complains about the horrible condition of needles he has “had” to use—crooked, half-bent. Amber said Anthony once broke the needle off in his arm. He described the blood after that incident, “It looked like a murder scene had just happened.”

Amber said, “It does make me fearful to share,” but that when you want to get high, you just can’t worry about anything else. "You use the needle you have. Even if you know it’s dirty.”

All of the users in the film have ruptured skin on their faces, arms and legs. Chuck, a father who shoots up and shares needles with his sons, is missing teeth and his cheeks are concave. He talks about how scared he is as he waits for hep C test results.

Lowenstein says she will be following up with the subjects of the doc to find out how they are doing. It will be interesting to know if any of them were able to get and stay sober. She’s also excited about a story she’s currently working on. “It’s about using magic mushrooms—psilocybin—in the treatment of addiction.”

The idea of using hallucinogens dates back to Bill Wilson's exploration with LSD. Lowenstein said, “We are always looking into new information about science, medicine and recovery."

Check out Hepatitis Country: Inside America’s Opioid-Fueled Epidemic below:

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.