Study: Most Americans say painkiller abuse is a serious problem

Johns Hopkins research suggests majority support for policies aimed at controlling epidemic of abuse

Though most Americans have used prescription painkillers, the majority also believe painkiller abuse is a very serious public health concern, according to new research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The findings, published online Oct. 7 in the journal Addiction, suggest the public may be poised to support a variety of policy measures for controlling what has become an epidemic of abuse. The researchers believe it's the first national public opinion study on the topic.

The findings were also released just weeks before an announcement by President Barack Obama yesterday that his administration will take steps to increase access to drug treatment and expand the training of doctors who prescribe opiate painkillers.

More than one in four Americans has taken prescription painkillers in the past year, the study found. Roughly seven in 10 Americans have been prescribed painkillers in their lifetime and 17 percent say they've taken painkillers prescribed for someone else.

At the same time, 58 percent of survey respondents ranked pain medication abuse as either a very serious or extremely serious health issue, on par with problems such as gun violence and tobacco use, says study leader Colleen L. Barry, associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School.

"The seriousness of the issue has become salient with the American public," Barry says.

The past decade has seen a sharp increase in rates of prescription painkiller abuse, misuse, and overdose. Prescription painkillers are involved in roughly 475,000 emergency department visits a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drug overdoses—the majority of which involve opioid pain relievers—were the leading cause of injury death in the U.S. in 2012.

The Johns Hopkins researchers based their study on an online public opinion survey of 1,111 adults in the U.S. in February 2014.

A majority of respondents said they believe it's too easy for people to get multiple painkiller prescriptions, that doctors keep patients on the medications for too long, and that there's a lack of public understanding of the addiction potential of these drugs.

Notably, the study also found majority support for a number of policy proposals to reduce painkiller abuse in the U.S., including better medical training for treating pain and addiction, requirements to ensure patients can't "doctor shop" to get painkillers from multiple providers, and mandates for pharmacies to check patients' IDs before handing out prescriptions.

However, less than a majority of respondents supported increasing government spending on addiction treatment and a proposal to distribute medications such as naloxone that can reverse opioid overdose.

"We think this is the perfect time to work on passing policies that can truly impact the crisis of prescription pain reliever abuse," says study co-author Emma McGinty, assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management. "The issue has not yet been highly politicized like some public health issues such as the Affordable Care Act, gun violence, or needle exchanges, so we may have an opportunity to stem this epidemic."

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