Indiana Can’t Wait Any Longer to Address Our Opioid and Tobacco Addiction Epidemics

By Claire Fiddian-Green and Dr. Paul Halverson

This OpEd was originally published in The Indianapolis Star.

To learn more about the devastating toll of Indiana's tobacco use, read our reports released with the Fairbanks Foundation.

Hoosiers are all too familiar with the stories – of injured athletes who become addicted to prescription pain medicine, employees whose frequent smoke breaks damage their productivity, and family members devastated by a loved one’s addiction to heroin.

These are the manifestation of a dual epidemic in Indiana: opioid and tobacco addiction. Though the problem has been growing for years, it’s now reached crisis levels. Our state ranks 15th nationally for drug overdose deaths and has among the nation’s highest smoking rates, at 23 percent.

These findings – captured in a new report commissioned by the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation and conducted by the Indiana University Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI in Indianapolis – should provide a wake-up call for action.

For too long, our state hasn’t been adequately vigilant about preventing and treating addiction to opioids and nicotine, even as the epidemic has been mounting. We’ve failed to do enough, whether educating the public about the dangers of these substances or ensuring access to high-quality treatment for those battling addiction.

Given the prevalence of addiction in Indiana and its wide-ranging consequences, all of us, including elected state and civic leaders, businesses, healthcare providers, charitable foundations and everyday Hoosiers, must redouble our commitment to tackling opioid use and smoking in Indiana. The consequences of not doing so would be detrimental to the vitality of Indiana’s residents, communities and economy.

Today more Hoosiers die from drug overdoses than auto accidents each year. Nearly 11,000 Indiana residents annually lose their lives prematurely because of smoking, and another 1,400 die from exposure to secondhand smoke, the Fairbanks reports show.

Not only are the human costs great; the economic toll of drug overdose fatalities and tobacco addiction is unsustainable. Drug overdoses in Indiana accumulated health care costs of $10.4 billion in 2010, and tobacco consumption is estimated to put an additional $2.9 billion burden on the state’s health care system. Smoking alone costs Indiana employers $2.6 billion annually in lost productivity due to absenteeism, greater disability claims, lost work time spent on smoking rituals, and other factors.

These consequences are not limited to urban or rural areas, or to low-income or affluent neighborhoods. They affect our whole state. In X County, for example, there were X drug poisoning deaths per 100,000 people in 2014, and the rate of non-fatal emergency room visits for opioid overdoses was X per 100,000.

Addressing these issues will require a broad range of actions, including strategies to prevent opioid and tobacco use and efforts to better treat those already impacted by addiction.

On the prevention front, increasing education efforts, especially in schools, is critically important. Our state lacks adequate resources and infrastructure for delivering such programming. We need to change this because growing awareness of the dangers of consuming opioids and tobacco would prevent many Indiana residents from starting down a treacherous path.