A Short History of Opioid Use
As early as 5000 BCE, Sumerians living in southern Mesopotamia were consuming or smoking the leaves and flowers of opium poppy plants. Archaeologists have interpreted ideograms found in Sumerian writing examples that translate as HUL GIL, which means “joy plant” or “rejoicing”. As early as the 17th century, Chinese physicians began suspecting that opium had addictive qualities when opium users complained of feeling like “they were dying” if they could not afford to buy more opium.
Heroin as a Medicinal Cure-all
Although discovered in the 18th century, heroin remained a relatively unknown opioid until 1900 when it was mass-marketed as a “safe medicinal preparation free from addictive properties”. The term “heroin” was quickly trademarked and lauded as a non-addictive replacement for morphine’s pain-relieving and cough suppressing qualities. However, rates of heroin addiction rose so quickly that the U.S. Congress banned the manufacturing and sale of all opioids in 1924.
Take Hydrocodone Instead of Heroin: It’s Not Addictive!
Soon after banning opioids, a German scientist discovered that combining oxygen molecules with codeine created a new type of opioid called hydrocodone. Not only did hydrocodone provide strong pain relief and cough suppression, U.S. researchers determined hydrocodone was not addictive and would be an acceptable substitute for “medicinal” heroin.
Between 1930 and 1960, hydrocodone was prescribed by doctors for all sorts of health problems, from arthritic and lower back pain to menopausal and cold symptoms. However, it wasn’t until the early 1960s that researchers began publishing the results of longitudinal studies about the powerful addictive properties of hydrocodone.
The Return of Heroin Abuse
Skyrocketing heroin addiction rates started making the front pages of the New York Times throughout the 1970s. Part of the reason for the rise of heroin abuse in the 70s involved traumatized and injured Vietnam vets returning from Vietnam. Suffering from chronic pain due to war injuries, severe mental illness, and stigmatization of the war, Vietnam veterans found little help or sympathy for their plight. They turned to heroin to relieve their mental and physical pain.
During the 1980s and 1990s, crack cocaine rapidly overtook heroin as the most abused drug in the U.S. In response to this crack epidemic, the U.S. government passed stringent anti-drug laws that increased penalties for selling or possessing crack cocaine.
Prescription Opioids, Fentanyl, and Heroin
Fast forward to the opioid epidemic the U.S. is grappling with today. When did it start and, more importantly, why did it start? We now know that pharmaceutical companies developed, marketed, and lied about the addictiveness of prescription opioids in the 1990s and early 2000s. Although some pharmaceutical organizations have since been sued successfully for contributing to the opioid epidemic and physicians are curtailing opioid prescriptions, the epidemic still persists and shows no sign of waning.
Who exactly is abusing opioids and why?
How Opioid Use Has Affected Traditionalists (the Silent Generation)?
Individuals 75+ years old are part of the Silent Generation. Born before 1945, Traditionalists commonly suffer from chronic pain conditions that require prescription medications. Since many Silent Generation adults are in nursing homes or skilled nursing communities, their ability to freely access non-prescription opioids is extremely limited. Consequently, statistical information about how Traditionalists use opioids is nonexistent.
How Opioid Use Has Affected Boomers
Between 1945 and 1963, 76 million “boomers” were born in the U.S. the most babies ever born in a specific time period. Spurred by positive post-World War II economics and the rise of the nuclear family, this baby “boom” is responsible for the hippie movement of the 1960s and the drug culture of the 1970s.
Since boomers lived their younger years during a time when drug experimentation and drug use were an accepted, almost normal part of life, they tend to have higher rates of opioid addiction than their predecessors. Statistics show that an unprecedented number of Boomers take prescription opioids for pain relief while a much smaller percentage of Boomers are addicted to heroin.
According to Addiction in the Older Patient, the number of boomers seeking substance abuse treatment is expected to increase from 1.7 million in 2001 to over five million during this decade. The reasons why so many baby boomers get addicted to opioids involve their acceptance of and willingness to take drugs for pain, their age, and doctors who more readily prescribe opioids to older people for pain.
How Opioid Use has Affected Generation X
Born between 1965 and 1980, Generation Xers grew up during the Reagan years, the rise of conservatism, capitalism, Wall Street millionaires, and the “Just Say No to Drugs” campaign championed by Nancy Reagan.
However, none of this anti-drug sentiment affected Gen Xers as young and middle-aged adults. A study investigating the age differences among people entering opioid treatment programs found that nearly 20 percent of program enrollees were between 40 and 49 years old. Only one percent of enrollees were Baby Boomers.
Addiction psychologists suggest that opioid addiction has significantly impacted this generation due to older Xers fighting in the Gulf War and younger Xers being influenced by the cultural influences of grunge and rap music and easier access to prescription opioids in the 1990s.
How Opioid Use has affected Millennials/Gen Y
Born between 1990 and 2010, Millenials are often referred to as “digital natives” since they grew up not knowing what life was like without the Internet. Millennials have also lived through some of the most stressful times the world has endured: 9/11, the Internet Bubble stock market crash of 2002, the Iraq War, and the collapse of the housing market/stock market in 2008. Combine all those events with recessions, inflation, the high cost of health care, career instability, and the rising cost of college tuition, it’s no surprise that Millennials have been hit hard by the opioid epidemic.
According to Trust for America’s Health, rates of opioid overdoses have risen among Millennials by 500 percent since 2000. Overdose rates involving synthetic opioids–especially fentanyl–have increased by a stunning 6000 percent since 2000.
How Opioid Use has Affected Gen Z
Generation Z, or “zoomers” were born around 2010 and are either still in school or just entering college. Even though they represent the youngest of the generations, they might be the generation most affected by opioid abuse. In fact, one in five Zoomers has abused opioids given to them by friends or by stealing pills from a family member’s prescribed opioids. Researchers also cite significantly increased rates of ADHD, anxiety, and depression in Gen Z kids due to many of them dealing with housing and socioeconomic instability, academic problems, and isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- 50,000 people suffer a fatal opioid overdose every year
- An estimated 10 million individuals from all generations abuse opioids ever year
- Seven out of 10 overdose deaths involve opioids
- Nearly 50,000 people overdosed on heroin, fentanyl, or prescription opioids in 2020
- Between 1999 and 2019, deaths involving opioid use increased by 519 percent
- Fentanyl and fentanyl analogs contribute to 20 percent of all drug overdoses in the U.S.
- Adults with an associate’s degree are more likely to abuse opioids
- Opioid use among college graduates and people who did not finish high school substantially increased over the past few years–up 12 percent since 2018
- Teenagers who were prescribed an opioid by a physician are over 30 percent more likely to abuse opioids after graduating high school
Is the generation in which a person is born the best predictor of whether they will become addicted to opioids? The answer to that question is a definite no. Anyone at any age is vulnerable to opioid addiction, whether that opioid is prescription pain pills, heroin, or fentanyl. Opioid addiction does not discriminate nor does it care how many lives it ruins.
If you or someone you know is abusing opioids, contact FHE to learn about our residential and outpatient treatment programs.