Jim Langford, born and raised in the small town of Calhoun, is a faithful son of Georgia. After earning an MBA from the Harvard Business School, Jim went on to create a $2.5 billion technology company with a team of fellow alums. Then he turned his efforts to public service and began his tireless work for a better Georgia by writing the legislation to preserve Georgia’s Native American archaeological sites threatened by looters and development. Later, as head of Georgia’s Trust for Public Lands, Langford spearheaded the development of the Atlanta BeltLine, a series of multiuse paths and parks running in a rough loop around the city’s center.
Today, however, Langford’s focus falls under an entirely different category of urgency: As executive director of the Georgia Prevention Project (GPP), he leads a nonprofit organization whose mission is to halt the hockey-stick trajectory of overdose deaths from prescription drugs and heroin in Georgia.
The Georgia Opioid Crisis
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the US death rate from opioid overdose has increased over 400% since 1999. The picture is even grimmer in Georgia, where the death rate rose from 1.4 to 9.5 per 100,000 persons from 1999 to 2016. Beyond the devastating personal costs, the economic toll caused by rising health care expenses for overdose prevention drugs and addiction treatment, criminal justice costs, and productivity loss in the workforce is estimated to cost the state of Georgia $10 to $15 billion. The Council of Economic Advisers has estimated the national price tag at a shocking $504 billion.
Last year, recognizing the fast-moving and shapeshifting nature of these and other alarming developments, Langford approached Georgia Governor Nathan Deal to make the case for creating a strategic plan to address the opioid crisis. Jim organized a two-day meeting to gather information from stakeholders, including state legislators and public health officials. The event was oversubscribed by 200 people, despite being scheduled the week before Christmas.
A seminal white paper - Prescription Opioids and Heroin Epidemic in Georgia—is the product of the GPP’s Substance Abuse Research Alliance (SARA), an affiliate group of 150 researchers, public officials, and practitioners all working to turn the rising tide of deaths from opioid overdose. The paper reports that 80% of heroin users in Georgia began by first abusing prescription opioids. It is now estimated that 40 to 60% of addicts are skipping prescription drugs and going straight to heroin. At the same time, Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid powerful enough to cause death in a quantity equivalent to two grains of salt, has become a major factor contributing to the spike in overdose fatalities.
Only a Beginning
- Two proposed legislative agenda items from the group’s white paper were voted into state law last year:
- Making the overdose-reversal drug, Naloxone, available over the counter
- Beefing up an existing electronic system for tracking opioid prescriptions
- Over the past two years, 739 middle and high school teachers have participated in GPP’s online prevention program which provides the information and resources for them to lead interactive classes on the abuse of opioids and heroin.
- The GPP has also initiated The Teen Advisory Council as an experiment in progress with six schools participating and plans to expand to a dozen in the coming year. The council coaches teenagers who have experienced opioid addiction to mentor classmates by sharing their experiences in informal settings.
- The GPP is raising $8.7 million to produce and broadcast a series of 30-second TV ads aimed at preventing opioid addiction. “These ads need to be reality-based,” Langford says. “We can’t lose our credibility edge with kids.” For a track record, Langford can point to results from his previous Georgia Meth Project, where he utilized a similar educational format. A survey of 1,801 teens showed that after the ads aired those who saw little or no risk in trying meth dropped from 35% in 2010 (the year the campaign launched) to 11.6% in 2014. Teens who saw “great risk” in trying meth rose from 41 to 68%. This second-generation campaign, focused on prescription drugs and heroin, will hopefully have a similar impact.
With Congress allocating $6 billion in funding to the federal budget over the next two years, it is clear that the US government is also making the crisis a priority. “Now is our window of opportunity to have an impact on this deadly addiction. Let’s go,” says Langford.