There is a grim connection between two worsening addictions in the U.S.: to prescription opioid painkillers and to heroin. Both can be partly traced to worthwhile public-health initiatives that deserve to be protected.
The first initiative was a 1990s campaign to get doctors to take people’s pain more seriously. This worked amazingly well — for some people, too well. The second effort was the recent response to the ensuing spike in opioid addiction: Legal controls on painkiller prescriptions were tightened, and some of the drugs were reformulated to make them harder to overuse.
Preventing painkiller abuse will require cracking down on doctors who may be unscrupulous, or merely careless, as well as patients. Enforcing the law is no less important than alleviating pain or reducing addiction.
A great many Americans are addicted, and lately some of them have turned to heroin as a cheap, accessible — and illegal — alternative. (Heroin is just another kind of opioid, after all.) Both substances are increasingly abused: painkillers by nearly 2 million Americans and heroin by more than half a million. Last year, nearly 19,000 people died from taking too many painkillers, 16 percent more than the year before, and more than 10,500 succumbed to heroin overdoses, a 28 percent rise.
Given the stubborn quality of addictions, it will take persistence to bring this problem under control.