6 Reasons Opioids Get More Attention Than Alcohol

By Janice Reynolds, Guest Columnist

Every day we hear how the “opioid crisis” is spiraling out of control.  Some even claim it is the worst health crisis to ever hit our country.  The response has largely been to restrict access to opioid pain medications and to sue the pharmaceutical companies that produce them.

But what is the real crisis? The elephant in the room that everyone conveniently ignores?

I believe opioids are being used to cover-up and distract from the real addiction crisis, which is alcohol abuse. 

Alcoholic beverages have been with us for thousands of years and are an important part of everyday life. Alcohol consumption has been increasing in the U.S. since the late 1990's and today about 57 percent of Americans drink alcohol at least once monthly, far more than consume opioids. Drinking to excess is usually frowned upon, but has long been treated as socially acceptable, even by the Puritans:

Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan, the wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.                                                                                                                                                        --  Increase Mather, Puritan clergyman in “Wo to Drunkards” (1673)

Alcohol is the fourth leading cause of preventable death in the in the United States. In 2015, over 30,000 Americans died directly from alcohol induced cases, such as alcohol poisoning and cirrhosis of the liver. 

There are another 88,000 deaths annually from alcohol related causes, including motor vehicle accidents, homicide, suicide, and incidents of poor judgement – such as going out in subzero weather and freezing to death, and infants dying after being left in hot cars by drunk fathers.

Many harms also occur that usually do not result in death, such as alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape, fetal alcohol syndrome, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. The World Health Organization reports that alcohol contributes to more than 200 diseases and injury-related health conditions, including alcohol dependence, cirrhosis, cancers, and injuries.

So why is alcohol ignored and the so-called opioid epidemic is hyped? Here are six reasons:

1) Many people drink alcohol. They may only drink “socially” and need a glass of wine or beer to relax, enjoy a sporting event or socialize at a party. Alcoholic beverages are an integral part of mealtime for many people.   

We also have functional alcoholics who are secret addicts.  As a nurse for over 20 years, it was not uncommon for me to have a patient begin to go through withdrawal after 48 hours in the hospital. Usually they deny drinking alcohol or admit to one drink a night. There is also denial by the medical profession about the dangers posed by alcohol, such as addiction specialists who differentiate between heavy drinkers and alcoholics.

Research frequently ignores alcohol entirely. A recent study looked at health conditions linked to Alzheimer’s disease and mentioned obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and depression. Alcohol was not even considered, even though it has been shown in valid studies to damage brain cells.

2) Alcohol is BIG business.  Profits are immense and generate tax revenue.  Profits for breweries, distilleries and related businesses far outstrip what pharmaceutical companies make from opioids.  We see these monies going not only to shareholders, but government, lobbyists and advertising.

No one complains about a full-page newspaper ad for a brand of vodka, but a commercial during the Super Bowl for medication to treat opioid induced constipation sparks outrage. And no one bats an eye when a story about Maine liquor stores dropping the price of hard liquor is on the same front page with another article on the opioid crisis.

When have you ever seen a stadium named after an opioid or even a pharmaceutical company? Yet we have Coors Field in Denver, Busch Stadium in Saint Louis, and Miller Park in Milwaukee.

3) Problems need scapegoats. In this case we have two scapegoats: people in pain and opioids.  

Prejudices against people in pain have long existed: “It’s all in your head” or “the pain can’t be that bad” are all too familiar. It could also be simple bigotry towards someone different or a lack of compassion. We used to call pain management “an art and a science,” now it is optional and politically driven medicine.

Opiophobia has a long history as well; fear of addiction, fear of respiratory depression, belief that opioids don’t work, and that people in pain are drug seekers. The “opioid epidemic” has opened the gateway for uncontrollable and irrational bigots.

Nearly all the interventions to curb drug overdoses have been directed at people in pain, who are not responsible for the illegal use of opioids. If all prescription opioids disappeared tomorrow, it would have nil effect on the opioid crisis. Addicts would just turn to heroin and illegal fentanyl (if they haven’t already). There are a boatload of ways to get high.

4) McCarthyism: In the 1950’s, Senator Joseph McCarthy went hunting for communists and many lives were ruined. Today, the term “McCarthyism” defines a campaign or practice that uses unfair and reckless allegations, as well as guilt by association. 

Politicians, the media and many doctors are afraid to say anything not endorsing the “opioid epidemic” or supporting people in pain, because it will be held against them.

5) Fear-mongering:  The spread of frightening and exaggerated rumors of an impending danger that purposely and needlessly arouses public fear.

We can see this in the psychological manipulation that uses scare tactics, exaggeration and repetition to influence public attitudes about opioids. This is exactly what Andrew Kolodny and Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) are doing, along with formally reputable organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration and professional medical associations.

6) The alphabet soup: The CDC, DEA, and the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) have all played a part in distracting us from alcohol abuse.  Although it is a drug, alcohol is not usually covered by the DEA, but is handled by the ATF, which mainly concerns itself with alcohol licensing and collecting alcohol taxes.

The DEA has been totally helpless to stop the influx of illegal opioids like heroin and illicit fentanyl, as well as thediversion of prescription medications. Their survival mechanism is to go after the legitimate use of opioids for pain.  They have become a terrorist organization that is driving providers out of pain management.

In order to cover-up the heavy cost of alcohol abuse, we have seen hysteria driven by politicians and the media. This has resulted in difficulty getting opioids prescribed for pain, skewered facts to support the “opioid epidemic,” the CDC’s opioid guidelines, and what I call the passive genocide of people in pain.

There are many different means by which genocide can be achieved and not all have to be active (murder or deportation). For our usage, genocide means “the promotion and execution of policies by a state or its agents which result in the deaths (real and figuratively) of a substantial portion of a group.” 

Our genocide is passive because it relies on the harmful effects of pain, suicide, withdrawal of treatment, excessive use of over-the-counter pain relievers, malpractice, and the total dismissal of the human rights of people with pain; as well as lies and falsehoods being held as truths to promote this genocide.

This is not to say that alcohol should be made illegal. Prohibition did not work because most people wanted alcohol and it lead to a huge criminal enterprise. It is to say prescription opioids should not be treated differently than other medications or alcohol.  And people in pain should not be used to further an agenda based on fallacious, unethical and immoral sensationalism. 

Janice Reynolds is a retired nurse who specialized in pain management, oncology, and palliative care. She has lectured across the country at medical conferences on different aspects of pain and pain management, and is co-author of several articles in peer reviewed journals. 

Janice has lived with persistent post craniotomy pain since 2009.  She is active with The Pain Community and writes several blogs for them, including a regular one on cooking with pain. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.