Living in Society Social Commentary

Opioids: A Conjured Crisis

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack scolded the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine about opioid abuse on Friday.

The institution is not doing enough to train its soon-to-be health professionals on an opioid abuse epidemic that claims thousands of lives a year nationally, Vilsack said, according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

The university just got the word about its role in the opioid abuse epidemic last week. According to the article,

After Vilsack’s remarks, UI Health Care medical affairs vice president and dean of the medical college Jean Robillard told The Gazette the institution does plan to make changes in the way it teaches med students about prescribing opioids. He said the UI received information on it from the White House earlier this week.

Vilsack oversees the White House Rural Council, established by executive order on June 9, 2011 by President Obama. Opioid abuse is on a long list of maladies that impact rural communities. It is one issue among many the council hopes to address.

News media and politicians have made much of opioid abuse. Facts suggest at 28,648 (2014) annual deaths related to opioids — including heroin, hydrocodone and oxycodone — abuse is not a leading cause of death in the United States. It’s not even among the Centers for Disease Control’s top ten causes of death, with heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, unintentional injuries and stroke being much more prevalent.

What gives?

Fanning the embers of opioid abuse into a raging wildfire serves the interests of Big Pharma and its minions in the U.S. Congress. The opioid epidemic represents another opportunity for corporations to mold government in a way that serves their interests.

We’ve seen this before with methamphetamine abuse. Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding makes the case that it’s less a drug’s addictive propensity than a combination of economic policy, government complicity with Big Pharma, and corporate policies that are behind the degradation of rural communities like Oelwein, Iowa, the subject of his book.

The short version is when meth had its fiery burn into the media atmosphere, corporations used it as an opportunity to control importation of key ingredients to a profitable cold medicine in a way that led to many small-scale meth lab busts in Iowa, and the rise of methamphetamine trade among Mexican drug cartels. The opportunity regarding opioids may be a little different, but why wouldn’t Big Pharma want another bite from the apple?

It is ironic that Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, part of the “war on drugs,” was window dressing to her husband’s economic policies that drove the underlying causes of abuse and addiction, not only in small towns, but throughout the country.

People suffer from many types of addiction and neither government nor the insurance companies that drive health care are doing much to address them. Opioid abuse is an issue, yet the bigger issue is related to the growing divide between the richest Americans and the rest of us, corporate influence in government, and a K-12 education system that inadequately prepares children to sustain themselves in a society where corporations have the upper hand.

Opioids? Schmopioids! Let’s have a conversation about appropriate school curricula, something Vilsack addressed Friday in a weird, special interest kind of way.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa