New York Times Succumbs to The False Narrative Driving Opioid Policy-and Deaths

In an April 21 editorial, the New York Times succumbs to the false narrative reverberating in the media echo chamber that blames the opioid overdose crisis on doctors overprescribing opioids to their patients in pain. Even worse, the Times perpetuates a significant component of that narrative: the myth that such overprescribing can essentially be traced to nothing more than a single letter to the editor by researchers at Boston University in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1980 touting the low addictive potential of opioids when prescribed in the medical setting. 

In fact, numerous studies before and after that now “infamous” letter continue to demonstrate the low addictive potential of medically prescribed opioids. For example, 2010 and 2012 Cochrane systematic analyses show chronic non-cancer pain patients on opioids have a roughly 1 percent addiction rate, and a January 2018 study by researchers at Harvard and Johns Hopkins of more than 568,000 “opioid naïve” patients over 8 years who were given opioids for acute postoperative pain showed a total “misuse” rate of 0.6 percent. In a 2016 New England Journal of Medicine article, Dr. Nora Volkow, the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, stated, “Addiction occurs in only a small percentage of patients exposed to opioids—even those with preexisting vulnerabilities.” Furthermore, researchers at the University of North Carolina followed 2.2 million North Carolina residents prescribed opioids in 2015 and found an overdose rate of just 0.022 percent—and 61 percent of those overdoses involved multiple other drugs.

The Times then offers the same restrictive strategy—only more so— that is doomed to fail because it is based upon a false premise. The editors even suggest that opioids should be restricted to terminal cancer patients. Look at where this approach has gotten us thus far.

The prescription of opioids to patients peaked in 2010, with high-dose prescriptions down 41 percent since that time. A report last week from IQVIA showed opioid prescriptions dropped 10 percent in the last year, and high-dose prescriptions dropped 16 percent. The Drug Enforcement Administration ordered a 25 percent reduction in opioid production in 2017 and another 20 percent reduction this year. And since 2010, OxyContin has only been available in an abuse-deterrent form and many other opioids are likewise being reformulated. 

Yet the overdose rate continues to climb, and the majority of overdoses are due to fentanyl and heroin while the overdose rate from prescription opioids has stabilized or even slightly receded. The great majority of overdoses involve multiple drugs. In New York City in 2016, 75 percent of overdoses were from heroin or fentanyl and 97 percent of overdoses involved multiple drugs—46 percent of the time it was cocaine.

The opioid overdose crisis has always been primarily a manifestation of nonmedical users accessing drugs in a dangerous black market caused by drug prohibition. 

Policymakers must disabuse themselves of the false narrative they continue to embrace. It is the driving force behind a policy that has returned us to the “opioiphobia” of the Nixon era. It is making patients needlessly suffer and increasing the death rate by driving nonmedical users to more dangerous and deadly alternatives.