Recent laws, prescribing guidelines and awareness campaigns aimed at preventing painkiller abuse appear to be working. A new study presented evidence that the prescription opioid epidemic is declining. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that researchers also found evidence showing the decrease in painkiller abuse could be directly related to the increase of heroin use in middle-class suburban neighborhoods.
“Some people are switching from painkillers to heroin,” said Dr. Adam Bisaga, an addiction psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute in New York City. He added, “You can’t get rid of addiction just by decreasing the supply of painkillers.”
Dr. Richard Dart, lead researcher of the new study appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine said the findings are based on data from five monitoring programs. Four of these sources showed the same results of declining prescription painkiller abuse. He said that the big “but” of the study is that heroin abuse and overdose is increasing.
The study noted that nationwide, the rate of heroin-related deaths rose from around 0.014 per 100,000 in 2010, to more than 0.03 per 100,000 in 2013.
The switch to heroin is not the only reason for the decline in painkiller abuse, Dart said. He pointed to the flood of federal, state and local legislation passed in the last decade to combat prescription-drug abuse.
But both he and Bisaga said new legislation and guidelines on painkiller prescribing is not enough to keep prescription painkillers out of the wrong hands.
“You see drug cartels expanding into smaller towns. Heroin is reaching rural areas where it was never seen before,” Bisaga said. “And that is going to be around for a long time.”
Dart says demand has to be reduced, and that can be obtained by educating communities on the addictive potential of all opiates and wider access to addiction treatment.