More Americans Concerned About Painkiller Abuse Than Heroin

Americans have a largely sophisticated view of prescription opioid misuse, and many people personally know someone who has improperly consumed an opioid medication, according to new survey findings from a team of American researchers.

Prescription opioid misuse, opioid use disorder (opioid abuse/addiction) and opioid overdose are serious, widespread issues throughout America. In May 2015, researchers from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health reported the results of a new nationwide survey designed to assess perceptions of prescription opioid-related issues in the American public. These researchers found that Americans largely understand the personal and societal dangers of opioid medication misuse. They also found that substantial numbers of Americans have a friend, loved one or acquaintance affected by opioid medication-related issues.

Prescription Opioid Misuse

The terms prescription opioid misuse and opioid medication misuse refer to any instance in which a user of a prescribed opioid medication improperly consumes that medication, as well as any instance in which a person without a prescription consumes an opioid medication in any amount. Many sources refer to the same sets of circumstances as prescription opioid abuse or opioid medication abuse; however, the term abuse really applies more strictly to those individuals who develop clearly dysfunctional patterns of opioid medication intake but don’t have a physical dependence on opioids. Americans are the world’s No. 1 consumers of prescription opioids such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine and fentanyl. For this reason, it may not be surprising that Americans over the age of 11 misuse opioid medications far more often than they misuse any other substances that require a doctor’s prescription.

Most people involved in prescription opioid misuse obtain medication access through a relative or friend rather than through a stranger or drug dealer, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports. The vast majority of friends and relatives do not charge for this access. Opioid medication prescribing reached its peak in 2011-2012 after climbing sharply over the previous 10-plus years. Opioid abuse/addiction rates also increased accordingly during this timeframe, as did opioid overdose rates. Even though prescribing has leveled off in recent years, the daily death toll from opioid overdose in the U.S. is still more than 40 people. Significant numbers of individuals who start out misusing opioid medications eventually end up using heroin, the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes. Primary factors driving this trend include the low cost of heroin relative to opioid medications and the accessibility of heroin relative to opioid medications.

Perceptions in the General Public

The survey conducted and reported by the Harvard researchers was designed to gauge nationwide popular perceptions of a range of prescription opioid-related topics, including the likely sources of misused opioid medications, the seriousness of opioid medication misuse and abuse/addiction, the connection between prescription opioid misuse and heroin use, and the underlying reasons why America has such widespread problems with prescription opioids. A total of 1,033 adults over the age of 17 took part in the project; these individuals were chosen randomly in order to make sure that their opinions basically reflected opinions in the total adult population. All respondents took part in 2015 between April 15 and April 19.

The survey results indicate that a little over 50 percent of American adults believe that the misuse of powerful prescription opioids poses a clear societal risk in their areas on a statewide level. This is higher than the percentage of Americans who feel the same way about heroin. Almost 40 percent of respondents believe that prescription opioid misuse has intensified since 2010 (a timeframe that actually includes both the peak and slight decline of many key misuse statistics). Perception of the seriousness and extent of misuse commonly increases in those individuals who personally know someone who has improperly consumed an opioid medication in the relatively recent past. Thirty-nine percent of the survey respondents had this type of personal connection to the issue.

Fully 55 percent of survey respondents believe that purchasing is a common method of improperly obtaining prescription opioids, although most individuals gain access for free through people known to them. Interestingly, while almost half of all American adults accurately identify the high rate of opioid prescribing as an underlying cause of medication misuse, less than 30 percent believe that laws on the federal and state levels provide too much access to prescription opioids.

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