Survey Describes Public's Perception of Prescription Drug Abuse Problem

May 19, 2015|2:31 p.m.| Scott Briscoe

A new study on the public’s perception of prescription painkiller abuse provides a mixed bag of results. Fueled by the fact that almost 40 percent of Americans report knowing someone who has abused the drugs in the previous five years, half of Americans think prescription painkiller abuse is at least a very serious problem. Likely not coincidently, the public is split on various policy options regarding the issue.

The study, “Prescription Painkiller Abuse: Attitudes Among Adults in Massachusetts and the United States,” is based on surveys conducted by the Boston Globe and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in April. The Globe reported on the study on Sunday and the researchers held a webinar yesterday. (An archive of the webinar will be available on the site.)

It’s important to note that the Globe-Harvard study examines the public's perception of the problem. Before getting to more of the new findings, the following are the most recent facts regarding prescription drug abuse from the CDC:

  • The number of deaths due to prescription painkillers quadrupled from 1999 to 2013, when it reached 16,000.
  • Nearly 2 million Americans 12 years or older either abused or were dependent on opioid painkillers in 2013.
  • In 2011, there were more than 420,000 emergency room visits related to abuse or misuse of prescription painkillers.
  • Of those who abuse prescription painkillers, 27 percent get the drugs using doctor prescriptions, 26 percent from the prescriptions of friends or relatives, 23 percent buy them from friends or relatives, and 15 percent buy them from a dealer they do not know. (This last group is the most at-risk group to overdose.)
  • Healthcare providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for painkillers in 2012.

The Globe-Harvard report shows that the public perception of the major cause of prescription painkiller abuse is slightly askew from CDC’s actual findings. Buying the drugs from a dealer is the least likely source for abusers, but the new study shows that 55 percent of people think the ease of buying painkillers illegally is a major cause of the abuse. In contrast, CDC reports that the most common sources of misused painkillers are prescriptions themselves or friends or relatives who save unused pills, which only 45 percent of the respondents recognized.

On the flip side, there is a healthy fear of painkiller addition: fully 44 percent of Americans think it is very likely that a person taking prescription painkillers will become addicted to them.

The Globe-Harvard asked about two policy interventions. Given that half of the public thinks prescription painkiller abuse is a serious problem and half do not, it’s not surprising that opinion on policy options is also pretty evenly divided. The study asked if people believed that state governments should require insurers to provide more extensive coverage for treatment programs even if it would mean higher premiums. Forty-eight percent said yes; 46 percent said no.

The other policy intervention covered by the study was over-the-counter access to naloxone, which is used to treat opioid overdose: 42 percent support it and 47 percent oppose it.

There are many more possible interventions than these two, of course. ASTHO has an extensive, ongoing project to help states combat the prescription drug abuse epidemic. In fact, ASTHO recently released results from a survey of states gauging their actions on various initiatives. For example, most states report funding to support the implementation of effective primary prevention programs targeting substance abuse, while using prescription drug monitoring programs to identify vulnerable groups is less widespread.