BOSTON >> All six New England governors say fighting the social stigma associated with addiction is key to battling the opioid crisis raging across the region, claiming thousands of lives.
The governors pointed to a series of steps needed to fight the problem, from increasing education in schools about the addictive nature of opioids to limiting first-time prescriptions for opiate painkillers and ratcheting up law enforcement efforts targeting heroin.
They said critical to all the approaches is removing the stigma around addiction and getting people into treatment.
The governors spoke Tuesday at a forum organized by the Harvard Medical School.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said he became aware of the depth of the problem when he was campaigning for governor and heard stories from families about loved ones who died from overdoses.
Earlier this year Baker signed what he called the most comprehensive law in the nation to combat opioid addiction, including a seven-day limit on first-time prescriptions for opiate painkillers.
He said more needs to be done.
There were 1,379 unintentional, opioid-related deaths last year in Massachusetts. Without the overdose reversal drug naloxone, known by the brand name Narcan, that toll could have topped 5,000, he said.
"I have no illusions about how tough this one is going to be," Baker said.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said her state has seen more than 1,000 people die from overdoses in the past four years. She called opioid addiction "the single greatest public health crisis."
She said the fight to remove the stigma associated with addiction is tough.
"A lot of people still see this as an issue that is relatively confined to a certain kind of people," she said.
The governors said many who end up addicted begin by taking prescription painkillers.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin faulted the pharmaceutical industry and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who he said haven't done enough.
In 2012, he said, there were 250 million prescriptions written for OxyContin — enough for a bottle for every adult in the country.
"We're handing out OxyContin like candy," he said.
The governors also warned about fentanyl — a synthetic opioid, 50 times more potent than heroin.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy said fentanyl was a contributing factor in 188 overdose deaths in his state last year.
He said fentanyl — often combined with a purer and cheaper form of heroin — is fueling the overdose crisis.
New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan recalled speaking with woman who brought a small child to an Easter egg hunt at the Statehouse. She said the woman told her she was the grandmother of the child, whose mother had died a month earlier from an overdose.
"This is a daily occurrence," Hassan said.
Like his counterparts, Maine Gov. Paul LePage said there's no silver bullet. He said fighting the problem requires a mix of education, working with doctors on prescribing practices, beefing up law enforcement, and encouraging treatment options.
He also pointed to drug courts where he said those addicted to opioids can choose jail or treatment.
"It's what I call tough love, but believe me, it's a tough, tough problem," he said.
All the governors are Democrats except Baker and LePage.
The conference was also aimed at primary care physicians, pain specialists and others interested in the public health aspects of opioids.