Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson joined her counterpart in Wisconsin Monday in promoting the "Dose of Reality" media campaign to warn people of the dangers of misusing or overusing opioid painkillers.
Swanson said opioid abuse is the nation's fastest-growing drug problem, with "common household names" such as OxyContin turning deadly if overused and causing addictions that can lead people to use heroin as well.
"Our aim is to raise awareness about how to safely use, store, and dispose of opioid prescription painkillers," Swanson said.
Swanson seized on the opioid issue last year amid reports of rising overdose fatalities, including the death of pop star Prince. Minnesota reported 336 deaths in 2015 linked to excessive or abusive use of prescription opioids or illicit versions of the drug, such as heroin. That death count is six times the number of cases in 2000.
Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel launched the Dose of Reality campaign last year, featuring a video about a teen dying from opioid use.
Swanson said she hopes Minnesota TV stations will volunteer to run the "jarring" ad. She also encouraged people to go to the campaign's website where they can learn how to safely dispose of unused pills so they don't fall into addicts' hands.
The ad hit home for Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, and Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who joined in Swanson's announcement. Both lawmakers have lost children to opioid abuse.
"I'm still catching my breath from that ad," said Eaton, whose daughter died in 2007. "I don't know if I ever want to see it again."
In September, Swanson joined more than 30 state attorneys general seeking to ease patient access to Suboxone, a medication often used in drug treatment programs because it reduces opioid cravings.
In November, she called for tougher restrictions on prescribing opioids, including requiring doctors to check patient histories and reducing the duration of opioid prescriptions.
Baker and Eaton have offered legislation containing both proposals, along with an expansion of safe disposal sites at pharmacies.
Minnesota gradually has phased in a prescription monitoring system that allows pharmacists and prescribers to check a database to see if their patients have been "doctor shopping" to obtain multiple painkiller prescriptions.
The database had been a voluntary service for prescribers in the past, but this year they will be required to at least register so they have immediate access to it. Swanson's proposal would require them to go a step further and check the database for every patient.
The Minnesota Board of Pharmacy has not taken a position on Swanson's proposal, but executive director Cody Wiberg said it likely would generate opposition from doctors because of the increased costs and demands on their time.
Wiberg personally said he could support the requirement if it were patterned after Ohio's law, which provides exceptions, such as not having to check the database before prescribing to patients in hospice care.
Schimel said having Minnesota join Wisconsin in airing the TV ads and erecting the billboards will strengthen the campaign because viewers will understand the breadth of the opioid problem. He also said he hopes it will reduce the stigma that might have discouraged some users such as Prince from acknowledging an addiction and getting help.
"I think ... the stigma that 'I need help because of addiction' probably played a role in him not getting the help" that could have prevented his fatal overdose, Schimel said.
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