/publications/issue/2012/April2012/Learning-from-the-Addiction-Related-Deaths-of-Celebrities

Learning from the Addiction-Related Deaths of Celebrities

Author: Cmdr John Burke

Whitney Houston's tragic end could be an opportunity to start a conversation about dangers of drug abuse. 


Once again, a noted celebrity—Whitney Houston—has passed away tragically, seemingly due to substance abuse. Benzodiazepines and alcohol were report- edly found in Houston’s hotel room— drugs that create a deadly combination, especially if taken in large amounts.

Whitney Houston needs no introduc- tion, as she was arguably one of the greatest female singers of all time. In my opinion, she has a place in the top 3 with Barbara Streisand and Celine Dion. She possessed the God-given gift of an incredible voice in tandem with equally incredible good looks.

However, that seems to pale in light of the fact that she died way before her time, likely due to choices she made in her life. I don’t think I am taking a huge leap to say she was likely addicted to substances, prescription drugs being one of them and maybe the fatal product for her. This, unfortunately, is nothing new. If it is true, Houston follows Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and a whole host of other celebrities who have succumbed to pharmaceutical abuse.

Although the investigation is certainly not over, the first questions that come to my mind are, what prescriber is doling out her medications, and what pharmacy is filling the scripts? Did a physician willingly write prescriptions in fake names, such as those obtained by many celebrities? Did a pharmacist know that the name was a scam and fill the prescription anyway? This practice, although common in some social circles, is blatantly illegal and needs to come to a screeching halt. 

The other option is that no prescriber or pharmacist is knowingly involved, as the pills were obtained legitimately and then provided to celebrities directly or through their managers, groupies, or abuse. The focus should be the study of how a person with incredible talent and fortune could tragically be snuffed out due to the inability to shake an addiction. This is a person who, with her huge wealth and ability to enter into any rehabilitation program in the world, was still unable to overcome this demon. Doctor shopping, forged prescriptions, or just outright theft may be involved, but the bottom line is that celebrities abuse drugs, often pharmaceuticals, with deadly outcomes. 

The media put the spotlight on her for several days, includ- ing 3 hours of funeral coverage on national television. Countless additional hours on variety and news shows examined her overwhelming success as a singer and actress in the movie The Bodyguard. The movie was quickly placed on channels all over the country, and the show American Idol showcased her music. 

The problem with all of this coverage is that the most important point is seldom addressed by the media, and that is the examination and dissection of substance abuse. The focus should be the study of how a person with incredible talent and fortune could tragically be snuffed out due to the inability to shake an addiction. This is a person who, wiht her huge wealth and ability to enter into any rehabilitation program in the world, was still unable to overcome this demon.

Celebrity deaths from addiction should give the media an opportunity to educate the public about the substance abuse issues in the United States, especially pharmaceutical diversion. I don’t object to reviewing their successes, but I want the youth and others who idolize these folks to be acutely aware of the poten-tially catastrophic downsides to substance abuse. I contend there is no better opportunity to do this than when one of their “heroes” dies from an addiction-related problem and their death is in the public limelight.

I see that perhaps doing a better job of publicizing the substance abuse involved with the next celebrity—and there will be many more, unfortunately—may prevent a few tragic deaths among the general public. Maybe this is naive thinking on my part, but for the media to continue to skirt this part of a celebrity’s demise certainly isn’t reducing the problem.

Mourn her death, absolutely, but let’s hope even 1 person out there learned something about substance abuse and maybe saved their own life or managed to save another from this excruciating demise. PT


Cmdr Burke is a 40-year veteran of law enforcement and the current president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators. He can be reached by e-mail at burke@choice.net, via the Web site www .rxdiversion.com, or by phone at 513-336-0070. Cmdr Burke is commander of the Warren County, Ohio, drug task force and retired commander of the Cincinnati Police Pharmaceutical Diversion Squad. Cmdr John Burke