The state’s opioid addiction toll on young people is staggering. Last year 1,587 people died of overdoses. The Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse reported some 4,200 people under the age of 25 were admitted to substance abuse treatment programs in 2012. And those addicted to prescription painkillers dwarfed the number addicted to heroin, hallucinogens and cocaine combined. Lawmakers are considering requiring doctors and dentists to discuss the dangers and alternatives to opioid-based painkillers before prescribing them to young people. The executive director of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey is Angelo Valente.
Williams: Thank you for being with us.
Valente: Thank you.
Williams: Are young people under the age of 25 more susceptible to addiction? And would this bill address that?
Valente: Well, I think that we know that the brain is still developing until a person is well into their early 20s. So, when you put an opioid into that system there’s certainly grave concerns that it will lead to addiction. We’ve also found out through our research is that children who are prescribed opioids, painkillers, prior to high school graduation are 30 percent more likely to become heroin addicts, as a result of that.
Williams: This bill would require doctors to talk to minors and their parents about this and offer alternatives.
Valente: That is correct.
Williams: Are there alternatives?
Valente: Absolutely, there are many alternatives that are available that are being used currently in emergency rooms and in doctors’ offices, but what this bill does is makes it uniform so that every doctor, every emergency room doctor — as well as dentist in the state — will have an opportunity to speak to the parents of a child, a teenager, prior to prescribing. Share with them that the fact that the drugs being prescribed can become addictive and also talk to them about alternatives that are non-addictive alternatives.
Williams: Are doctors aware of the risks themselves?
Valente: I think that they’re learning. I think that for many years there was a misunderstanding on the part of the medical community about these particular drugs, these opioid-based drugs. For many years they thought they were safe and they really didn’t have the consequences or the addictive qualities that they have. We’ve learned that they are extremely addictive and that in many cases — too many cases — when a person — especially a young person — is given these prescriptions it leads them down a path of addiction.
Williams: Now, an earlier version of this bill required doctors to talk to all patients about the dangers of opioid-based prescription and offer them alternatives. Does this bill go far enough?
Valente: Well, I think it’s a great first step and it helps protect those people we need to be protected the most — which are our children — but certainly we would encourage and not only do we encourage but the Surgeon General and the Center for Disease Control have recently come up with guidelines that encourages doctors to speak to all patients, no matter what age they are, about how dangerous these medications could be. Also, they need to be looking at prescribing at a very limited basis — if they needed to be prescribed at all.
Williams: Well that’s interesting. This bill also doesn’t limit the number of painkillers that can be prescribed to a single patient. Why?
Valente: Well, I think there are other bills that are being heard that talk about limiting prescriptions. This bill basically is an education bill. It provides education to families, to children, to their parents or guardians and it really gets them engaged — which is important.
Williams: Is there a possibility that you are deciding that a law is going to take over a doctor’s regime?
Valente: Well, I think that this bill does not do that. What this bill does is really provides an opportunity for doctors, patients and families to understand and to become aware of the consequences. We just did a survey recently, in New Jersey, and it showed that 30 percent of middle school parents did not know that there was a link between prescription drugs and heroin abuse. So, that means a third of parents that have taken their children to emergency rooms for broken limbs, for sports injuries or to a dentist’s office for a wisdom tooth extraction, they don’t understand that these drugs can lead to addiction.
Williams: OK, thank you very much Angelo Valente.
Valente: Thank you.