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‘We can turn the dial back’

This professor is in many ways the face of Ohio State's response to the opioid epidemic.

It all started with a book — and one man’s growing realization.

Kenneth Hale, a clinical professor of pharmacy at Ohio State, had just read Generation Rx: How Prescription Drugs Are Altering American Lives, Minds and Bodies, and it laid out in detail what he had long suspected: America was awash in prescription drug use, and the public did not grasp the consequences.

But what could be done to transform our drug-taking culture? From his Parks Hall office in 2006, Hale ’76, ’87 MA, ’95 PhD needed only look right and left at his colleagues to begin to understand how Ohio State could contribute to the answer.

“We were sitting in a building where we have all the power, knowledge and resources to help with this problem,” Hale says. “We decided that we had to get laser-focused on the prevention piece.”

By the following year, Hale had envisioned Generation Rx, a public education platform dedicated to explaining to people of all ages the dangers of misusing prescription drugs.

Now, more than a decade later, this initiative has become a force that reaches hundreds of thousands of people with materials tailored to the classroom, workplace and medical settings and audiences from children to seniors.

“Our work is at the front end. How do we prevent people from beginning the misuse?” Hale says.

A careful observer of the drug use landscape for years, Hale, who also is the associate director of Ohio State’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery, says the opioid crisis arose from “a perfect storm.” In Hale’s view, the conditions for that storm are America’s drug-taking culture, easy access to medications and misperceptions of safety and legality when misusing them.

“Health professionals prescribe and dispense the medications that are often the gateway to the opioid epidemic, and they can go a long way toward defusing this storm,” he says.

That logic led to a pilot project in 2017 called the Opioid Patient Education Program in a handful of southern Ohio towns, where pharmacists are talking with each customer filling an opioid prescription about the drugs’ inherent dangers. Hale said pharmacists are learning people are still remarkably unaware of the risks.

“I’m not naïve enough to think it is going to stop all of it, but I have to believe we can turn the dial back considerably,” Hale says.

Nicole Kwiek, a clinical associate professor of pharmacology who helped develop and co-directs the Generation Rx program, says Ohio State students are expanding on the original idea with the creation of web content and interactive lessons. “We rely on the energy and creativity of our students in carrying forward Generation Rx,” she says.

Yet Hale’s optimism is tempered by reality. Fentanyl and related drugs accounted for about 58 percent of drug overdose deaths in the state in 2016. “We are going to get out of this, but it isn’t going to be a quick turnaround,” he says.

When will the opioid wave begin to crest? When the public views drug addiction in a fundamentally different way, Hale predicts.

“How can we make our culture more cognizant this is a disease, and it needs treatment, and the treatment facilities we have are woefully inadequate?” Hale says. “When we come to the point where we recognize that as a culture, that’s when we’ll beat this thing.”

About the author


Aaron Marshall '15 MA is a freelance writer and alumnus of the Glenn College of Public Affairs.