The War on Opioids Has Become a War on Patients

As Anne Fuqua recently pointed out in the Washington Post, non-medical drug users accessing heroin and fentanyl in the underground drug market are not the only victims in the opioid crisis. Many patients for whom prescriptions opioids are the only relief from a life sentence of torturing pain are also victims. That is because policymakers continue to base their strategies on the misguided and simplistic notion that the opioid overdose crisis impacting the US, Canada, and Europe, is tied to doctors prescribing opioids to their patients in pain.

Unfortunately, political leaders and the media operate in an echo chamber, reinforcing the notion that cutting back on doctors prescribing opioids is the key to reducing overdose deaths. As a result, all 50 states operate Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs that track the prescribing habits of doctors and intimidate them into curtailing the prescription of opioids. Yet multiple studies suggest that PDMPs have no effect on the opioid overdose rate and may be contributing to its increase by driving desperate pain patients to the dangers that await them in the black market.

Last month Arizona joined the list of 24 states that had put in place limits on the amount and dosage of opioids doctors may prescribe acute and postoperative pain patients. These actions are based on the amateur misinterpretation of the 2016 opioid guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and are not evidence-based.

And the Food and Drug Administration continues to promote the replacement of prescription opioids with abuse-deterrent formulations, despite an abundance of evidence showing this policy only serves to drive non-medical users to heroin and fentanyl while raising health care costs to health systems and patients.

As prescriptions continue to decrease, overdose deaths continue to increase. This is because as non-medical users get reduced access to usable diverted prescription opioids, they migrate to more dangerous fentanyl and heroin.

It is simplistic—and thus provides an easy target—for politicians and the media to latch on to the false narrative that greedy pharmaceutical companies teamed up with lazy, poorly-trained doctors, to hook innocent patients on opioids and condemn them to a life of drug addiction. But this has never been the case.

As Patrick Michaels pointed out about recrudescent opiophobia back in 2004, prescription opioids actually have a low addictive potential and when taken by patients under the guidance of a physician, have a very low overdose potential. Cochrane systematic studies in 2010 and 2012 both found an addiction rate of roughly 1 percent in chronic non-cancer pain patients. And a January 2018 study in BMJ by researchers at Harvard and Johns Hopkins examined 568,000 opioid naïve patients prescribed opioids for acute and postoperative pain from 2008 to 2016 and found a total “misuse” rate (all “misuse” diagnostic codes) of just 0.6 percent. And researchers at the University of North Carolina reported in 2016 on 2.2 million residents of the state who were prescribed opioids, where they found an overdose rate of 0.022 percent.

Until policymakers disabuse themselves of the false notion that the opioid overdose crisis is a direct result of doctors prescribing opioids to patients in pain, the opioid overdose rate will continue to climb—only the type of opioid from which victims are overdosing will change. We have already seen it move from diverted OxyContin and other prescription opioids to heroin, and from heroin to heroin plus fentanyl. Most recently, fentanyl was the predominant cause of overdoses.

The “war on opioids” being waged by today’s policymakers is, in effect, a “war on patients in pain.” If policymakers are serious about wanting to reduce overdose deaths, they should look to what has been done in Portugal, and now Norway, and end the war on drugs. If they can’t muster the political will to go that far, then they should at least put the focus on harm reduction measures, such as syringe services programs, medication-assisted treatment, and making the overdose antidote naloxone available over-the-counter.

Instead of a war on opioids, they should wage a war on deaths.