Washington Post Columnist Needs to Get Her Opioid Facts Right

In a December 28, 2017 column for the Washington Post entitled, “Opioid Abuse in the US Is So Bad It’s Lowering Life Expectancy. Why Hasn’t the Epidemic Hit Other Countries?,” Amanda Erickson succumbs to the false narrative that misdiagnoses the opioid overdose crisis as being primarily a manifestation of doctors over-prescribing opioids, goaded on by greedy, unethical pharmaceutical companies. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed less than 25% of people using opioids for non-medical reasons get them through a prescription. A study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association found just 13% of overdose victims had chronic pain conditions. Multiple Cochrane analyses show a true addiction (not just dependency) rate of roughly 1% in chronic pain patients on long-term opioids. Yet despite the 41% reduction in the prescription of high-dose opioids since 2010, the overdose rate continues to climb, and for the past few years heroin and fentanyl have been the major causes of death, as death from prescription opioids has stabilized or receded.

In actual fact, the rise in drug abuse and overdose is multifactorial, with socioeconomic and sociocultural components. This helps explain the Washington University study reporting 33% of heroin addicts entering rehab in 2015 started with heroin, as opposed to 8.7% in 2005.

It also helps explain why, contrary to Ms. Erickson’s reporting, opioid overdoses have reached crisis levels in Europe, despite a European medical culture that historically has been stingy with pain medicines, and has encouraged stoicism from patients. And the overdose crisis in Canada, ranked second in the world for per capita opioid use, has alarmed public health authorities there. But at least the Europeans and Canadians have the good sense to emphasize harm reduction measures to address the crisis, such as safe injection rooms and medication-assisted treatment, rather than focusing on inhibiting doctors from helping their patients in pain.