HealthDay News — The U.S. epidemic of prescription opioid medication abuse may be starting to reverse course, according to new research. The findings, published in the Jan. 15 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that recent laws and prescribing guidelines aimed at preventing abuse are working to some degree.
U.S. sales of opioid medications rose 300% between 1999 and 2008, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The increase had good intentions behind it, Richard Dart, MD, PhD, the lead researcher on the new study, told HealthDay. Unfortunately, he said, it was accompanied by a sharp rise in opioid abuse and “diversion” — meaning the drugs increasingly got into the hands of people with no legitimate medical need.
What’s more, deaths from prescription-drug overdoses tripled. In 2010, the CDC says, more than 12 million Americans abused a prescription opioid, and more than 16,000 died of an overdose — in what the agency termed an epidemic.
But based on the new findings, the tide may be turning, said Dart, who directs the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver. His team found that after rising for years, Americans’ abuse and diversion of prescription opioid medications declined from 2011 through 2013. Overdose deaths, meanwhile, started to dip in 2009.
The findings are based on data from five monitoring programs — four of which showed the same pattern of declining prescription opioid abuse, Dart said. One, for instance, followed patients newly entering treatment for drug abuse. It found that the number who said they’d abused an opioid in the past month fell from 3.8 per 100,000 in 2011 to 2.8 per 100,000 in 2013.
“The big ‘but’ is heroin abuse and overdose, which is increasing,” Dart said. Nationally, 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.
Dart RC, et al. Trends in Opioid Analgesic Abuse and Mortality in the United States. New Engl J Med. 2015; 372:241-248.