The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made a groundbreaking response to the opioid overdose epidemic on March 29 by approving Narcan — the brand name of a naloxone nasal spray that reverses opioid-related overdose — for over-the-counter use. 

The first opioid treatment drug to be sold over the counter, Narcan is packaged in a tiny, 4-milligram bottle. 

The drug could make a difference, particularly for the Black community, which has been disproportionately impacted by opioid-related overdoses.

When sprayed into the nose of someone who’s suspected of an opioid overdose, Narcan quickly restores breathing and reverses the effects of opiate drugs like OxyContin, Percocet, and Fentanyl. 

For several years, the medicine was only accessible with a prescription. Now, thanks to the FDA’s decision, it will be able to be purchased nationwide at drug stores, convenience stores, grocery stores, gas stations, and even online. 

Charles “Chuck” Ingolia, president and CEO of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing — a non-profit organization that delivers mental health and substance use services — says the public release of Narcan “demonstrates our humanity.”

“Narcan represents a second chance. By giving people a second chance, we also give them an opportunity to enter treatment, if they so choose,” he said in a statement. “You can’t recover if you’re dead, and we shouldn’t turn our backs on those who may choose a pathway to recovery that includes treatment.”

Although the opioid crisis affects folks from all racial groups, Black people are experiencing fatality at higher rates.

Opioids have taken the lives of thousands since the late 1990s, regardless of whether they were obtained through a legal prescription written by a doctor or purchased illegally from a drug dealer. 

Whether prescription (natural and semi-synthetic), heroin, or synthetic (such as fentanyl), the toll has been the worst during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In 2021, 80,411 people died from an overdose, up from 68,630 in 2020.

Although the opioid crisis affects folks from all racial groups, Black people are experiencing fatality at higher rates.

A study published in July 2022 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 2019 and 2020, the death by opioid overdose rate in the Black community jumped 44% — more than any other group.

The study found that opioid overdose deaths among Black youth aged 15-24 soared during that same time, increasing 86% — more than any other racial or ethnic group.

In addition, a study published in January by a group of Northwestern University researchers found that between 1999 and 2019, Black men over age 55 died from opioid overdoses at four times the rate of others in their age group. 

The Northwestern University researchers noted that racism and ageism may have contributed to these disparities.

For example, structural racism could’ve had several consequences, such as poor access to substance use disorder treatment and bias in pain treatment.

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Making Narcan available for over-the-counter use is a start to leveling the playing field. But in order for it to be most effective, the drug needs to be kept at a consumer-friendly price, the American Medical Association (AMA) says. 

“For this change to be most impactful, manufacturers must make the price of naloxone affordable, a crucial element for community organizations that are working to make it available,” Dr. Bobby Mukkamala, the chair of AMA’s Substance Use and Pain Care Task Force said in a statement

Making the life-saving treatment available to the public also allows loved ones and advocates to provide emergency care to friends and relatives of loved ones living with an opioid-use disorder.

“This decision will help community-based organizations purchase and distribute naloxone to those who need it most, and it will help destigmatize obtaining and using naloxone,” Mukkamala said.

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