When Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina said in Wednesday night’s debate that the country needed to do more to prevent drug addiction, she was speaking from personal experience: the loss of her stepdaughter, Lori Ann Fiorina, to addiction in 2009. It may be unusual for a public figure to share such personal tragedies so openly, but death by drug overdose is not uncommon in the United States.

“We need to tell young people the truth. Drug addiction is an epidemic, and it is taking too many of our young people,” Fiorina said during the debate. “My husband Frank and I buried a child to drug addiction.” 

Forty-four people in the United States die every day from overdosing on prescription drugs -- not to mention illicit ones -- according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prescription painkillers prescribed and sold in the U.S. quadrupled from 1999 to 2013, even though the actual amount of pain Americans reported had not changed. In 2013, the U.S. saw 22,767 drug overdose deaths due to prescription drugs, and nearly 2 million Americans that year abused or were dependent on opioid painkillers.

rx-painkillers-sales-and-deaths-700w Prescription painkiller sales and deaths in the U.S. Photo: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Wednesday’s debate was not the first time Fiorina brought up the death of her stepdaughter, whom she had known since Lori was six years old. “Lori was a bouncy, happy and loving child,” she wrote in her book "Rising to the Challenge," released in May. “She was smart and hardworking.” 

That book opened with the news of Lori’s death being broken to her parents in October 2009. “The two police officers stood awkwardly in our living room,” Fiorina recounted. “Frank and I looked at them and knew they had something terrible to say. …. The police officers said our daughter was dead, three thousand miles away.” 

Lori Ann Fiorina was just 35 years old when she died, and it remains unclear, at least publicly, what specific substances led to her death. But, Fiorina noted, “The news wasn’t completely unexpected. Lori had been battling addictions for years.” She had done three stints in rehab, and even when she was a college student her parents feared she drank excessively.

But after Lori Fiorina graduated from college, she seemed to thrive. She found a job in sales, an apartment and a husband. Little did Fiorina and her husband know that their daughter had begun to abuse prescription drugs, even as she struggled with bulimia and alcoholism.

“Virtually every minute of every day after those two police officers stood in our living room, Frank and I wondered what signs we had missed,” Fiorina wrote in "Rising to the Challenge."

The former HP CEO turned that experience into a call for action during Wednesday’s debate. “I know there are millions of Americans out there who will say the same thing” about having lost a child to addition, she said. “We must invest more in the treatment of drugs.”