Naples addiction expert on Florida’s deadly struggle with rising fentanyl use

Published: July 13, 2022 6:10 AM EDT
Updated: July 13, 2022 8:20 AM EDT

Florida is flooded with fentanyl, and a Naples doctor has witnessed firsthand the state Department of Health’s struggle to stop it as the number of users goes up and deaths spike along with it.

The CDC shows Florida had more than 4,700 deaths from opioids in 2020, a nearly 64% increase from 2019. Several experts attribute the increase to the pandemic and widespread uncertainty about the future.

Dr. Joseph Lee, president and CEO of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, is board-certified in addiction medicine, and he says the pandemic interrupted many Americans’ ecosystem. They then felt they needed an outlet to cope with new physical, financial and emotional stressors. CDC data shows that, in 2020, 74.8% of all drug overdose deaths in the U.S. were linked to opioids.

“Overdose rates for everybody have skyrocketed in the pandemic,” Lee said. “You know, when schools had to shut down and their network started to fall off, you saw high-risk kids suffer in many ways. And you see the additive effects of that as mental health, suicide rates and substance use as well. And so this is another tragic outcome, but we can reverse it.”

State legislators approved HB 95 this year, which increases the penalties for the sale and distribution of opioids like fentanyl. And FDOH says it is going to start focusing more on awareness, with a plan to launch a statewide advisory on the dangers of fentanyl focusing on prevention and recovery.

But experts across the state believe more needs to be done to address core issues, like addiction.

“We need more than education,” Lee said. “The playbook that’s been successful is there have been memes and kind of social messaging campaigns that have been very effective in the past. One was tobacco. And tobacco use for young people dropped dramatically over the past couple of decades until vaping came along, because of those memes and those campaigns.”

Data from the CDC shows the number of deaths related to opioids in Florida nearly doubled from October 2019 to January 2022. Even with legislation being passed to curb opioid use, some state leaders think more can be done.