The Painkillers Kill public awareness campaign is saving lives, its organizers say.
Launched with a $300,000 donation from BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York and more than $3 million worth of free media, the effort prompted almost 40 percent of area residents to take some type of preventive action, according to Gretchen Fierle, senior vice president of marketing and communications with BlueCross BlueShield.
“We went in and did a community survey, and two out of three people in Western New York have seen the campaign, and 38 percent have already taken action because of it,” she said. “They have either disposed of opiates in their medicine cabinets, spoken to their children or friends about painkillers, or have made a different choice when offered the drug.”
The campaign started last October, several months after North Buffalo resident Avi Israel contacted the health insurer to share his story of heartbreak in losing his son to opiate addiction. Michael Israel, 20, took his own life in 2011 after struggling with opiates that had been prescribed to him following surgery for Crohn’s disease.
“I went in there with all the intention of banging on the table and saying, ‘How dare you pay for my son’s addiction with the prescriptions and not be able to pay for his treatment?’ ” Israel said. “Right away, they said, ‘What can we do to help?’ I said, ‘We need to educate the public about the dangers of addiction.’ ”
Fierle said all media outlets in the region agreed to be part of the campaign, with Eric Mower + Associates providing the creative aspects of how to get the word out.
“We secured advertising on billboards, on television, radio, newspapers and magazines, and then we secured partnerships with area pharmacies, including Tops, Walgreens, Wegmans and local pharmacy owners,” Fierle said.
It’s estimated that more than 50 million “impressions,” or viewings, of the different forms of promotion have occurred since the campaign began.
In addition to advertising, assemblies at schools and colleges have been held.
They included the documentary, “Tragedy & Hope: Stories of Painkiller Addiction,” produced by WNED-TV. Educators are also given curriculum to continue the prevention conversation in classrooms.
There is also a public art project that includes portraits of young people who have died from opiates; its goal is to put a face on the opiate epidemic.
At Williamsville North High School, Michael Israel’s portrait is on display.
At Alden High School, a portrait of 24-year-old Cory Bea can be seen. He died last June after developing an addiction to pain medication while being treated for injuries from a near-fatal car accident.
Information sheets listing the dangers of painkillers with tear-off wallet cards are also being distributed at medical offices, pharmacies and schools.
“The tear-off card promotes a website for information on how get help and lists a hotline phone number,” Fierle said, explaining that the purpose is to provide rapid assistance for those in need of help.
The website is painkillerskill.org, and the hotline is (855) 969-HOPE. Horizon Health Services funds the hotline and manages the Web presence.
Praising the willingness of campaign participants, Fierle said, “In less than six months, we were able to pull together over 50 partners to launch this campaign that started in October.”
Providing additional funding through grants were several groups, including the John R. Oishei Foundation, the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, Tops, and the Robert J. and Martha B. Fierle Foundation, founded by Gretchen Fierle’s parents.
Israel, who founded Save the Michaels of the World, says the results of the campaign so far have been gratifying.
“Middle schools, high schools and colleges, all of them, have requested that we conduct assemblies and tell our stories and experiences,” Israel said. “It is creating an enormous amount of awareness into the dangers of narcotic painkillers.”