Emergent's new opioid awareness campaign taps NFL's Darren Waller to tackle overdose stigma

Emergent is teaming up with a slate of advocacy groups, plus an influencer and NFL tight end Darren Waller (pictured above), to tackle the stigma around opioid overdoses. (Emergent BioSolutions)

While COVID-19 dominated headlines last year, an epidemic of overdoses roiled quietly in the background. Amid the pandemic, U.S. officials recorded the highest tally of drug overdose deaths ever over a 12-month period, with the vast majority stemming from opioids.

Now, Emergent BioSolutions has joined forces with a syndicate of nonprofits—plus a former congresswoman, a prominent lifestyle influencer and an NFL tight end—to shine a spotlight on the overdose crisis. The campaign, called Reverse the Silence, debuted on July 26 and features an unbranded website, plus nationwide television and radio spots that aim to address the stigma surrounding opioid overdoses, which are often accidental, Emergent said in a release.

Four advocacy groups, led by former Congresswoman Mary Bono, have joined the Emergent-sponsored campaign. Emergent makes the popular overdose reversal drug Narcan, a nasal spray version of the opioid antagonist naloxone.

Each person who takes part in the overdose discussion “makes reversing the silence stronger and clearer,” the campaign’s website says. On that front, the campaign has drafted two heavy-hitting voices in NFL player Darren Waller and “City Girl Gone Mom” influencer Dani Schaffer, both of whom will talk “openly” about their experiences with overdose and addiction in TV and radio spots airing across the U.S.

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By encouraging people to speak up, the campaign aims to stop “allowing others to dictate the narrative” for people living with and working through addiction, Las Vegas Raiders' player Waller said in a statement. Waller, who is opening up about his past struggles with substance abuse, says he started using opioids at age 15 and developed a dependency that left him feeling “completely isolated” and misunderstood.

For her part, Schaffer, whose brother died of an accidental overdose in 2018, uses her platform to discuss opioid use and how to be ready for a potential emergency, Emergent said.

One way to prepare is to have an overdose reversal drug like naloxone on hand, which the campaign likens to a seatbelt or fire extinguisher. “Accidents happen,” the website says, noting that “having naloxone available in the event of an accidental overdose can help save a life.”

The site urges anyone taking an opioid to establish an at-home safety plan, which includes safe storage of the meds, the ability to recognize an overdose, access to naloxone and frank discussions with family, friends and doctors about opioid use.

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The campaign's website isn’t tied to Narcan specifically, but it offers a bevy of naloxone resources including basic information about the drug, how it works and how people can obtain it. All states have access laws that permit pharmacies to offer naloxone without a prescription, the website notes.

Last year, more than 93,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, with 80% of those tied to opioids, the CDC said. That’s the highest number of overdose-related deaths over a 12-month period ever recorded by the agency, Emergent said in a release.

"We hope to educate the public on the magnitude of the opioid epidemic which has only gotten worse during COVID-19," former Congresswoman Bono said over email. Part of the solution involves bringing talks "into the open" so people realize they have options available to them. 

The alliance believes opioid use disorder and substance use disorder are "medical conditions, not a moral failing," she said.