Local pharmacist details history of opioid epidemic

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to correct the type of drug that librium is, which is a benzodiazepine.

To some, the opioid epidemic gripping the state of Alaska and the nation at large might seem to have appeared almost overnight. Those in the health care industry know that in reality, it’s a problem that was percolating for several decades.

Stephen Mueller, a pharmacist at Ulmer’s Drug and Hardware, was at SVT Health and Wellness for the most recent Thriving Thursday to set the record straight. He took the handful of attendees through the history of Big Pharma and its role in the opioid crisis, as well as the prescribing practices of doctors that contributed to the issue.

Of Alaska’s 128 drug related deaths in 2016, 78 percent of those involved a type of opioid, according to a 2017 State of Alaska Epidemiology bulletin. In 2015, Alaska’s opioid overdose death rate, at 11 deaths per 100,000 people, was higher than the national rate — 10.4 per 100,000.

Mueller described the rise of medical advertising and marketing directly to consumers — as opposed to the traditional route of drug sales reps to doctors to patients — as a major contributor to increasingly higher numbers of people getting addicted to their pain medications.

And it goes back farther than that. Originally, the United States was wary of opioids, Mueller said. The only one in common use for a long time was morphine, and it had the connotation of being a drug for the terminally ill and in pain.

An early benzodiazepine called librium, made by Hoffmann-La Roche Inc., was found to be a muscle relaxer and have a hypnotic affect to help people sleep. This drug was tweaked to eventually become valium, and the successful marketing of valium as something that would relieve “psychic tension” translated into doctors prescribing it for more and more people.

Psychic tension, as it turned out, was a term coined not by actual doctors, Mueller said, but by the man in charge of marketing the drug.

“They were giving it to everybody,” Mueller said. ” … Valium almost became a right.”

The rise of prescriptions like benzodiazepines and opioids and the means to market them directly to consumers gave way to over generous prescribing practices, Mueller said in his presentation, as well as prescribing doses that were much too high.

In 2007, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to charges that executives misled doctors, regulators and patients about the risk of becoming addicted to opioid painkillers. In essence, doctors overprescribed opioids for a long time because they were being misled about how dangerous it was, Mueller said.

Mueller pointed to surgeons in the Homer area who use responsible prescribing practices and a focus on nonopioid treatments for pain as an example of how the tide is turning. The Southern Kenai Peninsula also has Dr. Sarah Spencer who, in addition to being a family practitioner in Ninilchik, works in addiction medicine.

Still, there’s a long way to go. Opioids are still one of the most often prescribed medicines in most drug stores, Mueller said.

Homer residents will have another chance to discuss the ongoing opioid epidemic during an upcoming meeting, “Your Voice, Your Community: What is Homer Doing about Heroin?” hosted by the Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships (MAPP). The meeting will be held from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday, March 7 at Land’s End Resort.

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

More in News

The 2021 elections will be held Oct. 5.
Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board Q&A

On Tuesday, Oct. 5, elections will be held for Homer City Council,… Continue reading

The 2021 elections will be held Oct. 5.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Q&A

On Tuesday, Oct. 5, elections will be held for Homer City Council,… Continue reading

The 2021 elections will be held Oct. 5.
Homer City Council candidate Q&A

On Tuesday, Oct. 5, elections will be held for Homer City Council,… Continue reading

Traffic moves north along the Sterling Highway shortly after a fatal crash closed the highway for several hours Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. The state is seeking federal funding for a project aimed at improving safety along the Sterling Highway between mileposts 82.5 to 94, or between Sterling and Soldotna. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)
State looks to federal funding for Sterling Highway project

The project is aimed at improving highway safety between Sterling and Soldotna.

Ethan Benton (left) and Laura Walters of Kodiak win the vaccine lottery for the Alaska Chamber's week one vaccine lottery giveaway "Give AK a Shot." (Screenshot)
State names winners in 1st vaccine lottery

A Valdez and Kodiak resident took home checks for $49,000 each.

Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion
A podium marks the beginning of a StoryWalk at Soldotna Creek Park on Tuesday, June 29, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. The project was discontinued in August due to vandalism.
Vandalism ends Soldotna library program

The StoryWalk was made possible by a $2,500 donation from the Soldotna Library Friends.

Juneau Empire file
The Coast Guard medevaced a 90-year-old suffering stroke-like symptoms near Ketchikan aboard a 45-foot response boat-medium like this one, seen in Juneau, on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021.
Coast Guard medevacs man from yacht near Ketchikan

The 90-year-old suffered symptoms of a stroke.

James Varsos, also known as “Hobo Jim,” poses for a photo during the August 2016, Funny River Festival in Funny River, Alaska, in August 2016. (Peninsula Clarion file)
‘Hobo Jim’ opens up about recent terminal cancer diagnosis

Varsos was named Alaska’s official “state balladeer” in 1994.

Most Read