This is an archived article that was published on in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Jennifer Plumb has watched Utah's drug overdose deaths climb year after year.

The Beehive State was eighth in the country not too long ago. Then it was fifth. Now its fourth.

"We're going in the wrong direction," said Plumb, an assistant professor at the University of Utah Health Care's pediatrics department.

Plumb was one of many experts addressing the state's drug epidemic Wednesday at the Utah Heroin and Opioid Summit in downtown Salt Lake City.

The summit follows Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week. That's great, Plumb said, but a lot of people are well aware of this problem: now it's time to act, she said.

"We're losing more people [per year] combined to prescription pain killers and heroin than we were losing people to AIDS at the peak of the AIDS epidemic," Plumb said. "The scope of this problem and the depth and the horror brought on by this problem is really something we have to jump in to and we have to be active about."

And naloxone, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose, is a good first step to addressing the epidemic, said Plumb, who also is the medical director of Utah Naloxone.

"This is not going to fix the epidemic but we have to keep people alive while we work on other steps," she said.

In the past year, 3,000 free naloxone kits were handed out to Utahns — from parents to law enforcement — and 140 reversals were reported as of this week.

But the state is taking other steps against this epidemic. For example, state officials currently are revising Utah's opioid guidelines. They hope to have them completed by the end of the year, said Robert Rolfs, state Department of Health's deputy director.

"We want to change behavior," Rolfs said.

Among other things, Rolfs said those guidelines will focus on prescribing fewer drugs to fewer people.

And experts say part of changing that behavior is avoiding prescription drugs for chronic pain treatment unless "the expected benefits for both pain and function outweigh the risks," Rolfs said.

State Rep. Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful, also was on the panel and said the root of the prescription drug problem often "goes back to a prescription pad somewhere."

Brian Besser, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Salt Lake City District Office, said opioid abuse costs the nation $78.5 billion a year in increased health care costs, lost productivity and increased criminal justice costs.

The problem has reached the point where "drug dealing occurs in our households through our own medicine cabinets," Besser added.

Barbra Roach, special agent in charge of the DEA's Denver Division, which includes Utah, urged an approach to the epidemic that includes enforcement, prevention and treatment.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder also supported that approach, saying said jail is a necessary part of the effort, but that addicts must have treatment and supervision when they are released.

Mark W. Lewis told summit participants that he felt relieved on the nights that his son, Tony, was incarcerated in the Salt Lake County jail.

Lewis, who is deputy federal security director for the Transportation Security Administration in Salt Lake City, said his son, who was addicted to heroin by the age of 15, was safer behind bars than on the outside where he could feed his drug habit.

Tony Lewis hated heroin but in the end could not stop using it, the father said. Anthony William Lewis died on Oct. 27, 2014, of an overdose at the age of 27.

"I loved my son dearly regardless of his addiction," Lewis said. "It will take all of us to tackle this."

Twitter @alexdstuckey

Twiiter: @PamelaMansonSLC