Evolving Opioid Crisis Is Hitting African-Americans Particularly Hard

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams discusses recent spike in overdose deaths in Cuyahoga County’s African-American community at the City Club May 29.
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams discusses recent spike in overdose deaths in Cuyahoga County’s African-American community at the City Club May 29. [Marlene Harris-Thomas / ideastream]
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The recent spike in overdose deaths in Cuyahoga County’s African-American community is not a surprise, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams told the City Club of Cleveland Wednesday.

There were eight overdose deaths over the Memorial Day weekend, according to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office, and half of those who died were African-American. The medical examiner issued the second public health alert in a week, after 18 overdose deaths in eight days, likely due to fentanyl.

One of the ironies of the opioid epidemic, Adams said, is that black people were spared in the beginning because it was a mostly a prescription drug epidemic and, unfortunately, black people were denied pills for chronic pain. But the opioid crisis is evolving.

“And so in an odd way they were spared initially, but now we’re seeing a lot of fentanyl creeping into cocaine, into crack and in to many of the other substances that the African American community has traditionally been using,” he said.

Adams urged the City Club audience to start carrying naloxone, the overdose antidote drug to help save lives, but emphasized that best strategy for combating the drug crisis is decreasing the stigma so people will seek help and focusing on prevention programs so people never start using.

Adams said the underlying problem with addiction is the overall health of the public.

“The risk factors for substance misuse, whether it’s tobacco, alcohol, opioids, meth, are the same risk factors for cardiovascular disease, the same risk factors for cancer, the same risk factors for diabetes,” he said. “It’s the lack of health and wellness in our communities and says prevention is more important than marginally reducing the number of prescriptions.”

The United States has overall reduced opioid prescriptions by 22 percent, Adams said, but doctors didn’t do so with a viable alternative for treating chronic pain.
“We went from prescribing 95 percent of the world’s Vicodin to 5 percent of world’s population to prescribing 90 percent of the world’s Vicodin to 5 percent of world’s population,” he said. “But that means we’re still prescribing 90 percent of the world’s Vicodin to 5 percent of world’s population.”

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