While the third wave of the opioid epidemic, beginning in 2013, has impacted every corner of the U.S., some geographical regions have sustained more damage than others. Central Appalachia remains one of these regions. Data from the Appalachian Regional Commission shows that overdose mortality rates for people ages 25–54 were 43 percent higher in this region than in the rest of the country in 2018. Sitting in the heart of Central Appalachia, Tennessee has been significantly impacted by the opioid crisis. In order to understand why this state has been so greatly affected, it is necessary to examine the socioeconomic characteristics of Tennessee in addition to the scope of opioid addiction within the state. 

Why Tennessee? 

Tennessee has become the epicenter of the opioid crisis due to various socioeconomic factors. Being interconnected, these specific circumstances have created a hotbed for substance abuse, addiction, and outbreak. Primary elements which have left Tennessee susceptible to the ongoing opioid epidemic are the state’s high poverty level, targeted marketing by pharmaceutical corporations, immense physical labor force, and lack of federal and state regulation. 

 According to the United States Census Bureau, 13.9 percent of Tennessee’s population is at or below the poverty line. When calculated, this amounts to 949,255 residents. Low-income households are at high risk for developing substance use disorders due to the constant stress of unaffordability, lack of quality education, and absence of adequate healthcare.

Regions with high poverty levels, such as Central Appalachia, are frequently exploited by pharmaceutical companies. With little resources at their disposal, residents of Tennessee fell victim to one of the most notorious pharmaceutical corporations, which many believe is largely responsible for the current opioid epidemic. As covered by the Knoxville News Sentinel, Purdue Pharma employed 87 sales representatives for the state of Tennessee alone. Purdue told its sales representatives to target medical providers who were overworked, serving poor communities in Tennessee, and had less training, calling them “high-value prescribers” because they could be easily persuaded to increase prescriptions and dosages of OxyContin.  

Unfortunately, there was and continues to be a need for pain relief in Tennessee. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor shows that 11.8 percent of Tennessee residents, or 803,570 Tennesseeans, are physical laborers. As a hub for coal mining and logging, the labor force of Central Appalachia is vulnerable to chronic pain and workplace injury. Because physical labor is standard in this area, it wasn’t long after the introduction of prescription opioids that the epidemic spread throughout Tennessee.

Prescribing physicians in Tennessee, many of whom were likely approached by Purdue Pharma, are responsible for treating patients with workplace injuries or sufferers of chronic pain. In comparison to many other states, regulations on opioid prescriptions in Tennessee remain lax. Although new legislation has been passed restricting long-term opioid prescriptions from being written, doctors can still write any opioid prescription they desire for a three day supply, while doctors who fit the state criteria to be considered “pain management specialists” do not have to adhere to these regulations

Opioid Addiction in Tennessee 

After examining the various socioeconomic factors that have reinforced the spread of opioid addiction in Tennessee, the state’s third place ranking in the U.S. for prescription drug abuse seems reasonable. According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, approximately 70,000 Tennesseans are addicted to opioids, with 5 percent of Tennesseans having used pain relievers in the past year for non-medical purposes. 

As professionals entrusted with the health and wellness of patients, doctors are, unfortunately, among the top contributors to the current opioid crisis. A study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse revealed that Tennessee providers wrote approximately 82 opioid prescriptions for every 100 persons in 2018 while the average U.S. rate was 51 prescriptions per every 100. As shown in the graph below, this was the same year that 550 prescription opioid overdose deaths occurred. 

Knoxville Recovery Center Can Help  

It is important to seek help immediately if you or a loved one is struggling with opioid addiction. As fellow Tennesseans, the experts at Knoxville Recovery Center are eager to help. Our unique addiction treatment programs combine elements of traditional 12-step programs with holistic and behavioral therapies. By offering treatment that is scientifically proven to be effective, our clients can rest assured that they are in the best hands. 

The founders of Knoxville Recovery Center, as well as many of our addiction therapists, have struggled with addiction and now enjoy life in recovery. They understand the struggles of addiction and how difficult it is to overcome alone. Our specialists are on standby and ready to help. Call Knoxville Recovery Center to speak with an addiction specialist today and take the first step towards a rewarding life of sobriety.

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