Harold Tu’s “aha!” moment came in front of the Washington Monument.
In October, 2014, Tu, director of the division of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, was visiting Washington, D.C., with his wife. Tu was there to attend an oral surgery conference. Their son-in-law, Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist, was speaking at a rally of Fed Up!, an organization working for a national response to the opioid epidemic. Kolodny asked his in-laws if they would attend.
About 2,000 people were at the rally, many of them carrying posters or wearing T-shirts with photos of children lost to overdoses. Tu had an epiphany.
“These are pictures of my patients,” Tu said to his wife. “We set young people on the course of misuse and addiction.”
Not deliberately, of course. But every year, oral surgeons remove the wisdom teeth of about three million people. The majority are under 25. And virtually all leave surgery with a prescription for opioids.
Dentists and oral surgeons are by far the major prescribers of opioids for people ages 10 to 19. That’s an age when the growing brain, which doesn’t mature until 25, is particularly susceptible to being taken over by opioids — even if the dosage seems too small to produce addiction.