Originally in The Charlotte Observer

April 3, 2019

At first the pills were a welcome relief for Bryan Licsko, easing severe back pain after a car accident.

But pain relief quickly spiraled into addiction. Licsko got hooked on drugs like Percocet and Vicodin. Some mornings he wouldn’t even get out of bed unless he had his pills.

“I was in a really dark place,” said Licsko, 41, who has since kicked his addiction with help from a substance abuse program.

On Thursday, he’ll join North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles and others to launch a statewide awareness campaign designed to fight opioid addiction, an epidemic that kills five North Carolinians a day.

North Carolina is teaming up with the state’s two biggest heath care companies and dozens of other groups to roll out the program they’re calling More Powerful NC. Starting Thursday, a $2.5 million public awareness campaign kicks off on TV, radio and billboards.

“The opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history, is taking lives and wrecking families all across North Carolina,” Stein told the Observer. “We need a comprehensive approach that attacks this problem from all perspectives.”

Most of the advertising money will come from private sources, including Charlotte-based Atrium Health and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina. Another $365,000 will come from state and federal money allocated for opioid-related programs.

The crisis is as severe in North Carolina as it is across the country.

▪ More than 2,000 North Carolinians died of an opioid overdose in 2017. That was a 32 percent increase from the year before. Mecklenburg County saw 179 opioid-related deaths that year, a number that’s risen steadily.

▪ Over the last two decades, statewide deaths have topped 13,000.

▪ The problem is getting worse. In the last decade, deaths by unintentional opioid overdoses have more than doubled.

▪ By some measures, it’s worse in the Carolinas. According to Atrium, opioid-related deaths in North Carolina rose 18.3 percent from 2016 to 2017. They jumped 6.8 percent in South Carolina. The national average was 5.1 percent.

2017 survey for the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in five Americans knows somebody who died from an opioid overdose.

Some areas are hit harder than others.

Last year, North Carolina’s Cherokee reservation was named one of 10 new High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas by the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy. The number of patients diagnosed with a drug problem jumped 300 percent between 2012 and 2018 at Cherokee Indian Hospital.

The General Assembly has addressed the issue through laws such as the 2017 STOP Act, which among other things tightens regulation on prescribing opioids. Stein said the new campaign is designed to help prevent addiction.

He said studies show that 85 percent of addicts never get treatment. On the website are tips on how to dispose of unused prescription medications, how to safely store medications and how to involve your company or your church.

Marcia Lee Taylor, executive vice president of the New York-based Center on Addiction, said public awareness campaigns that are “informed by research and have a clear and compelling call to action can be a very effective tool to educate the public . . . and change relevant attitudes and behaviors.”

Licsko turned to his church as well as to AA. He also found help through a program at Atrium, where detox drugs like Suboxone helped him get his life back on track. He believes the state’s new program can help others avoid falling into the grip of addiction. 

“People say, ‘Why don’t you just stop?’” he said. “Unfortunately it’s not that simple. The drug changes the way your brain works. (The program) is helping get the conversation started in the community. It’s erasing the stigma around addiction and recovery.”