July 28th, 2016
Yesterday, The New York Times ran an article alternately headlined “Antidote to Heroin May Encourage Risk Taking,” and “Naloxone Eases Pain of Heroin Epidemic, But Not Without Consequences.”
It suggested that there is increasing public concern that providing naloxone to reverse overdose may do more harm than good.
In fact, it’s that fear—not naloxone—that is dangerous.
Katherine Seelye wrote: “Critics say that [naloxone] gives drug users a safety net, allowing them to take more risks as they seek higher highs.”
However, the only such critic she quoted was not a doctor, researcher or even a mainstream politician. Instead, she had to turn to Paul LePage, the notoriously extremist governor of Maine, who had said “Naloxone does not truly save lives; it merely extends them until the next overdose,” as he vetoed a bill to expand access. (The heartless veto, however, was actually met with outrage and soon overturned).
In America, it’s usually unacceptable to say or even imply that the lives of some people are not worth saving. But people with addiction are an unfortunate exception. In our case, if something that might keep us alive longer might also “enable” our drug use, it’s ok to argue to let us die.
We’ve been through this before with needle exchange, where the fears of religious authorities and ill-informed addiction treatment providers were hyped by the media and used by politicians to oppose it, despite scientific evidence that proved that their concerns were groundless.
Those fears led to years of delay and thousands of needless deaths and HIV infections. When New York state was finally able to broadly expand clean syringe access in the ‘90s and beyond, HIV rates among injection drug users fell from 54 percent in 1990 to just 3 percent in 2012. This prompted state health officials to label the once-controversial intervention as the “gold standard” for HIV prevention.
The data on naloxone is similarly favorable. Indeed, research conducted in Massachusetts found that communities with greater access to naloxone training and distribution programs have half the overdose death rate compared to those with less access.
But you wouldn’t know that from the Times article or its headlines. They didn’t even cite the study, even as the article quoted one of its authors, leaving the impression that this is a matter to be debated based on emotion and politics, not science.
Let’s not go back to those bad old days, where media panic stirs political opposition to harm reduction—and data and the genuine negative consequences of such policy are ignored. The media has a responsibility to present addiction as the health problem that it is, and to always be skeptical and consider potential biases.
No one would claim that people with heart disease shouldn’t be revived multiple times—even if they hadn’t always followed their diet and exercise plan. No one would cover a cancer treatment that didn’t also stop people from dying in car accidents as a failure.
The fact that such an article was even seen to be newsworthy suggests that those of us who want people with addiction to be seen as humans who deserve life have a long fight ahead.
Maia Szalavitz is a columnist for The Influence. She has written for Time, The New York Times, Scientific American Mind, the Washington Post and many other publications. She has also authored six books, including Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006). Her latest book is Unbroken Brain: a Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction. Her last column for The Influence was “The Rules Around Opioid Maintenance Would Be Seen as Unconscionable in Any Other Branch of Medicine.” You can follow her on Twitter: @.