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Killer Tide: Doctors Cut Down On Prescribing Opioid Painkillers

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- Hoping to prevent more heroin and opioid addictions, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have gone to the source.

They are among 10 states that limit painkiller prescriptions to seven days or less.

In February, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed into law a five day limit and mandatory education for doctors.

"In 2014, we wrote 295 million prescriptions for opiates in the country. That's enough for every adult in the country to have a bottle of opiates," he tells WCBS 880's Marla Diamond. "You know, we're out of control."

Learn More: Killer Tide. The Opioid Epidemic

A representative from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently told a Congressional panel that prescription painkillers are no longer driving the opioid epidemic -- that heroin and illicit fentanyl are responsible.

But opioids are seen as the gateway drug to addiction, and Christie says it begins in the doctor's office.

"I was with a young man yesterday who was a football player at the University of West Virginia. (He) got a knee injury, got surgery. (They) gave him percocet. Before you knew it, he was addicted, he was out of school," he says. "And this young man -- his parents were heroin addicts. The doctors never asked him if he had any family history of addiction before they gave him an opiate medication."

"So we need to educate doctors too that they're not doing the job as completely as they should. They're not asking the right questions and they're giving out too much of this stuff," he adds.

Watch: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses the opioid epidemic 

In March, the governor held his first round table as head of President Donald Trump's opioid addiction task force at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Paterson, New Jersey -- a city that's become a heroin hub for the surrounding suburbs.

"I wanted to be here, because I think you're setting the example, not only for New Jersey but for the rest of the country, about how to take a team approach to this, and to get at the root of the problem and try to really deal with it," he says.

Since the start of 2016, St. Joseph's emergency department has been using opioids only as a last resort.

"A lot of people say, 'So you're giving people Tylenol instead of opioids?' And the answer is no. We are managing pain very aggressively with non-addicting meds," said Mark Rosenberg, the hospital's chairman of emergency medicine. "We also know one major principle: If we don't give opioids, nobody is going to get addicted."

In the year since the program began, Rosenberg says the emergency room has seen a 58% reduction in the use of opioid painkillers.

"The results are just spectacular," he says.

The effort has spread to other areas of the hospital.

A recent study by the Stamford University of Medicine, found an increased risk of opioid addiction for those having 11 common surgeries. Dr. Gregory Greco, a plastic surgeon in Redbank, New Jersey, has been using a non-opioid option called Exparel that's injected during the procedure to release a numbing medication into the body over time.

"This is real. This is not for the sake of this interview. I really do this every single time. And I can tell you that my patients do much better, they limit the amount of narcotics that they use. I'm not going to say that I've never written a second prescription, but I would say that is an extremely uncommon event," he says. "I think that we always transition our patients after surgery to non-narcotic options. I think it's our responsibility. And the other problem with narcotic usage is the severe effects that patients have between nausea, vomiting and constipation. So it's in their best interest to not use these medications."

For years, drug manufacturers marketed their opioid painkillers as safe and effective. Now, they're being targeted, much as the tobacco industry was in the 1990s.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO, recently requested marketing, sales and addiction study material from drug companies. Suffolk County is one of many that has followed suit.

"We're basically going to the source and saying that you know there were deceptive marketing practices used here that caused an explosion in the use of these opioids that has had a direct impact on our taxpayers in terms of law enforcement costs and social costs, obviously not to mention the just tragic family costs," County Executive Steve Bellone says.

More than 275 people died of opiate and heroin overdoses in Suffolk County last year, and the medical examiner there is sounding the alarm.

Marla Diamond will have more on that as our Killer Tide special report series continues next week.

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