Painkiller abuse crisis hits millions of Americans

Jose Luis Pelaez | Getty Images

Jose Luis Pelaez | Getty Images

Those little pain pills are causing a whole lot of hurt — particularly for white people.

More than half of all Americans say that they have a personal connection to the issue of prescription painkiller abuse — with many saying that someone close to them is addicted to such medication, and many others knowing people who died from overdoses, according to a poll released Tuesday.

The worrisome findings come three weeks after two Princeton University economists revealed a surprising spike in the death rates for white, middle-aged Americans, due in no small part to an increase in overdoses from heroin and prescription opioid medication.

The new poll, released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, found that white Americans were much more likely than blacks and Hispanics to have a personal connection to prescription painkiller abuse.

A total of 63 percent of whites who spoke to Kaiser researchers said they had a personal connection to prescription pain medication abuse, compared to 44 percent of blacks and 37 percent of Hispanics.

A personal connection was defined for the purposes of the study as knowing someone who has taken prescription painkillers that were not prescribed to them, knowing an addict, or knowing someone who died from an overdose of the drugs.

Overall, 56 percent of all Americans have a personal connection to the issue, according to the Kaiser poll, which questioned 1,352 people via phone earlier this month, and which had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

“It certainly is a striking share who say that they have a personal connection to painkiller abuse,” said Bianca DiJulio, one of the Kaiser researchers involved in the poll.

DiJulio said that Kaiser for the first time included questions about awareness of painkiller abuse in its monthly tracking poll because of recent attention given the issue by elected officials such as President Barack Obama, who traveled to West Virginia last month to highlight the problem of heroin and prescription drug abuse, which is particularly prevalent there.

“This is an illness, and we’ve got to treat it as such,” Obama said in a speech in the state.

“This increase for whites was largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.”-Angus Deaton and Anne Case, Princeton researchers, on changing death rates

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president, drew widespread attention earlier this month for a speech in which he talked about his mother’s addiction to smoking, and how a law school friend’s addiction to the drug Percocet led to that man’s death.

“It can happen to anyone. And so we need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them,” Christie said in that speech.

Almost 40 percent of respondents to the Kaiser poll, like Christie, said they know a prescription painkiller addict — with 27 percent of all respondents saying that addict is a close friend, family member or themselves. A total of 45 percent of people know someone who has taken a prescription painkiller that was not prescribed to them.

Sixteen percent said they knew someone who has died from an overdose of such drugs. More than half of those people said it was a family member or close friend who had fatally overdosed.

Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental deaths in the United States, Kaiser researchers noted in their summary of the poll results. Despite that, just 4 out of 10 people surveyed identified drug overdose as the leading cause of accidental fatalities. Half of respondents said car accidents were the top cause.

However, widespread personal knowledge of the problem of prescription drug abuse translated into relatively strong support for the idea of lawmakers and governors making reducing such abuse a top public policy priority, with half of the respondents saying it should be a top priority.

And large majorities, upward of 80 percent or more of respondents, said that a number of strategies would be “at least somewhat effective” in reducing painkiller abuse, including treatment of addicts, monitoring doctors’ prescribing habits, public education and awareness programs, and training physicians on appropriate use of the drugs.

A strong majority of 63 percent said they support so-called Good Samaritan laws, which bar prosecution of someone for any drug-related crime if they call for emergency medical help for a drug overdose by themselves or someone else. Some U.S. states have adopted such laws.

Prescription painkiller overdoses were cited in the recent analysis by the two married Princeton economists, Angus Deaton and Anne Case, who found that death rates for white middle-aged Americans rose from 1999 to 2013, in contrast to all other age, racial and ethnic groups, which have seen their death rates fall during that time.

“This increase for whites was largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis,” according to an abstract of the analysis, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The analysis noted that the increase in the death rates of white, middle-age people has occurred at the same time that group has reported declines in their health, mental health and ability to work, and “increased reports of pain.”

“One in three white non-Hispanics aged 45–54 reported chronic joint pain in the 2011–2013 period,” the analysis said. “One in five reported neck pain; and one in seven reported sciatica.”

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