UMN bioethics series to address opioid abuse

The Mini Bioethics Academy takes place in Moos Tower Jan. 23, Jan. 30 and Feb. 6.

Wesley Hortenbach

Amid a growing national crisis, the University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics is hosting a three-part educational series focused on the opioid epidemic starting this week.

The Mini Bioethics Academy features faculty speakers discussing the opioid crisis, media portrayal and community engagement. Organizers hope the seminars — scheduled for Jan. 23, Jan. 30 and Feb. 6 — will help the public grasp varying aspects of the epidemic. 

While the Center for Bioethics has hosted these academies in the past, this year is the first academy to incorporate a unifying topic into all three seminars. 

The way people obtain opioids and the race of people affected by opioid addiction set this drug epidemic apart from others in the past, which will be discussed during the series, said Susan Craddock, University professor and director of the Center for Bioethics.

Painkillers — the opioids driving the epidemic — can be obtained legally through prescriptions, unlike other drugs that have been abused on large scales, she said. 

Additionally, Craddock said opioid usage hasn’t been criminalized, as white people are those primarily abusing the drugs. The crack epidemic in the 1980s was criminalized because it was a more prominent issue among communities of color, she said.

“Some people have criticized opioid addiction of getting kind of a softer, more public health oriented response versus to other drug addictions that are not in a white, middle-class demographic,” said Kayleen Jacobson, programming and communications manager for the Center for Bioethics.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, nearly 400 people died of opioid-involved overdose in 2016, compared to 229 in 2010.

Craddock said doctors contribute to the growing opioid epidemic by not researching medication guidelines, but she pins most of the blame for the crisis on pharmaceutical companies. 

“[The companies] have admitted that they knew long ago that the drugs that they were producing were highly addictive drugs that are multiple times the strength of morphine,” Craddock said. “They basically pressed forward with the production and marketing of their drugs … instructing physicians that they were safe and effective.”

The dangers of opioid abuse have received more media attention recently because of celebrity overdoses, like that of singer Tom Petty, which raise awareness among the public, said Sarah Gollust, associate professor in the Division of Health Policy and Management. Gollust will speak at the academy on Jan. 30.

“It’s not just people you know succumbing to the same problems, which helps to spread the sentiment that even if you have wealth and power and prestige, these things are extremely real,” she said.

The Mini Bioethics Academy takes place in Moos Tower. Registration costs $10 per session for the general public or $5 for students.