UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Pennsylvania is in the midst of a full-fledged, substance misuse epidemic, with one out of every four families encountering this issue. Penn State is combating the crisis by drawing upon the expertise of researchers, educators, practitioners and policymakers, who gathered recently for the Consortium to Combat Substance Abuse (CCSA) Conference, held April 29 on the University Park campus.
The conference, “Envisioning a Future Free from Addiction: Research, Programs, and Practice to Prevent Substance Abuse,” kicked off with a community engagement breakfast featuring presentations from Penn State Vice President for Research Neil Sharkey and Geoff Kolchin of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, among others.
Penn State President Eric J. Barron and Congressman Glenn Thompson (R-PA) welcomed conference attendees after being introduced by Stephanie Lanza, interim director of the CCSA and director of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center.
Barron emphasized Penn State’s pledge to combat substance abuse in Pennsylvania, noting that the University's commitment to enhancing health is part of it’s land-grant mission.
“With 24 campuses spread across the Commonwealth, Penn State has a campus within 30 miles of 96 percent of Pennsylvanians," said Barron. "We have tremendous reach, and the potential to have an impact on this crisis is strong.”
Thompson said, “There's not a zip code in this country that hasn't been impacted by substance abuse," and called the epidemic "the public health crisis of our lifetime.”
A session on preventing the next substance abuse epidemic from a national perspective began with a keynote address from Thomas McLellan, former deputy director in the Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Obama administration. McLellan summarized findings from the 2016 Surgeon General’s Report, noting how increasing prices and taxes on alcohol has reduced drinking by 30 percent. He also detailed the government’s success in reducing cigarette smoking.
“A steep decline in smoking rates over the last 50 years is the result of good science in partnership with the government and communities," said McLellan. "Penn State can leverage its resources to do the same for substance misuse.”
Following a poster session and round-table networking discussions about breaking down barriers to address substance abuse, the afternoon sessions focused on substance abuse prevention and forming new partnerships to move forward. Glenn Sterner, assistant professor of criminal justice at Penn State Abington, presented key findings from his collaborative work with opioid users in four Pennsylvania counties.
“Nearly one-third of opioid users have overdosed in the past year, and two-thirds of those have overdosed more than once. We need to think about how these substances are coming into our communities," he stated.
“With 24 campuses spread across the Commonwealth, Penn State has a campus within 30 miles of 96 percent of Pennsylvanians. We have tremendous reach, and the potential to have an impact on this crisis is strong.”
— Penn State President Eric Barron
Janet Welsh, associate research professor at Penn State and principal investigator of the EPiSCenter, outlined the PROSPER project, designed to deliver evidenced-based interventions to youth in collaboration with cooperative extension in numerous Pennsylvania counties.
“Reaching the 15,000 youth within PROSPER with interventions to prevent prescription drug misuse would lead to over $6.75 million in short-term societal benefits and could lead to major public health impacts,” she said.
Penn State Health researcher Dr. Sarah Kawasaki discussed a coordinated hub-and-spoke approach to the treatment of substance use disorder in central Pennsylvania, led by Penn State Hershey.
“The number of opioid overdose deaths has now surpassed the number of HIV deaths in this country. The hub-and-spoke model, with the hub located in Harrisburg and spokes spanning seven counties, is providing a continuum of care for opioid treatment and includes community health clinics, drug free counseling facilities, regional ERs, inpatient units, rural clinics, pain management, and probation/parole services,” Kawasaki stated.
Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine wrapped up the afternoon sessions by explaining the history of opioid and heroin addiction in Pennsylvania and the Commonwealth’s three-pillared response to the crisis: prevention, rescue and treatment.
Levine has advocated for a number of initiatives in the state, including the Opioid Stewardship Program, which works with medical schools to provide education on pain management, and the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, an online tool to help physicians identify patients who are struggling with opioid addiction. The program has contributed to the reduction in opioid prescriptions in the state by 25 percent. In addition, Levine has advocated for the PA Prescription Drug Take-Back Program, with 813 take-back boxes spread across the state, including locations near University Park.
In 2018, Levine signed a standing order for first responders and the general public to expand Naloxone access, and spearheaded last year’s Naloxone Day where over 6,000 free Naloxone kits were distributed.
“Naloxone is a unique drug, its only purpose is to reverse opioid overdose and save lives,” Levine explained. There will be another Naloxone Day occurring this summer.
“While we are in the sixth iteration of 90-day statewide disaster declaration to help combat the heroin and opioid overdose epidemic, last year for the first time in five years, [Pennsylvania] saw a significant decrease in overdose deaths. We have bent the curve,” Levine concluded.
The conference was hosted by the CCSA, part of Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute. In addition to the conference, the CCSA is supporting 12 new faculty hires to attract scientific leaders dedicated to combating substance abuse, a competitive seed grant program, and Community Fellows awards.
Sponsors of the conference include Penn State Outreach, Addiction Center for Translation, Center for Applied Studies in Health Economics, Center for Educational Disparities Research, Center for Geriatric Nursing Excellence, Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, Child Study Center, Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness, College of Nursing, Clinical and Translational Science Institute, Evidence to Impact Collaboratory, Huck Institute, The Methodology Center, Population Research Institute, Rock Ethics Institute, Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, College of Agricultural Sciences, College of Communications, College of Education, College of Health and Human Development, College of Medicine, Office of Government Affairs, Penn State Law, and the Office of the Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses.