How US became world’s biggest consumer of opioid painkillers

11-08-2017 Posted in opioids, Substance Abuse

The United States, with a population of over 326 million, is home to more than 4.3 percent of the world population. And just like its gross domestic product (GDP) which is the highest in the world, the nation is also the top consumer of opioids. As per an estimate, the U.S. accounts for approximately 25 percent of the drug-related deaths worldwide, including overdose deaths driven mostly by opioids.

On average, 120 people die every day due to drug overdose in the U.S., which is much higher than 5.8 per day in Australia or 32 per day in Europe. Drug overdose deaths have more than tripled in the U.S. in 16 years, reaching 52,404 in 2015 from 16,849 in 1999. In 2015, 33,000 people died due to opioids alone (prescription opioids, heroin and fentanyl), which is the highest annual fatality ever.

The opioid scourge in the U.S. has reached the level of an epidemic, prompting President Donald Trump to declare it as a public health emergency. According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), there were 11.8 million opioid misusers aged 12 and older in the U.S., a majority of them abusing prescription painkillers. The sales of prescription opioids for chronic pain showed a similar trajectory of increase between 1999 and 2015.

Gap in opioid prescribing methods fueling epidemic

Prescribing opioids arbitrarily and inordinately is one of the key reasons why the country is grappling with an opioid crisis. Nearly one out of five patients with non-cancer pain receives an opioid in primary care settings. Other health care settings are also no less responsible, although primary care providers accounted for nearly 50 percent of opioid pain relievers prescribed.

In 2006, there were 72.4 opioid prescriptions for every 100 Americans. However, the trend remained stable over the next couple of years with only marginal increase from 2006 through 2012. The trend decreased 4.9 percent annually from 2012 through 2016, with the rate reaching 66.5 opioids per 100 Americans.

Varying culture of opioid prescription

The question that perplexes everybody is why has the U.S. become so susceptible to opioid addiction in comparison to other nations? After all, people in other countries also suffer pain from broken bones, arthritis and surgery, and there are far greater ageing populations in some European countries and Japan but have fewer opioid prescriptions.

The reasons for this are many, but these can broadly be divided into two – cultural differences and regulatory systems. For one, opioids are rather tightly controlled in Europe and Japan, while in the U.S. pharma companies used their clout to advertise and aggressively market their opioid brands. Doctors followed through with outrageous numbers of prescriptions.

Americans believe in quick fixes and opioids do just that – they mask the pain while the source of pain go unaddressed. Back in the 1990s, existence of pain was viewed as a serious medical issue and the aim was to eliminate it by any means. This resulted in the proliferation of painkillers, which landed not only in the hands of patients, but also among teens who found them while rummaging through their parents’ medicine cabinets.

A study conducted by researchers from the Department of Family Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University, found that corresponding to 97 percent of 198 American doctors who reported prescribing opioids for acute pain, there were only 50 percent of 461 Japanese doctors who reported doing so, displaying the differences in views of the doctors from different nationalities. Culturally, the Japanese believe in enduring pain.

Another study, conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Toronto, exploring the reasons behind the difference in opioid prescribing in North America and Western Europe, observed that health care is much more an industry in North America than in Europe. In Europe, only a specialist can dispense opioids, and not primary care doctors. As in Japan, non-cancer pains do not qualify for opioids. Besides, there are strict governmental controls and regulations on how the pharma companies advertise their products.

In nearly all the health care systems in Europe, doctors are salaried. There are no commissions involved for the medical care they provide or the number of pharmaceutical drugs they prescribe. In Japan, opioids aren’t typically covered by insurance either.

Seek help for addiction

To get rid of the medicines once considered compulsory for pain relief, it requires proper addiction treatment. If you or a loved one is grappling with a drug addiction, it is imperative to seek professional help.

The 24/7 Drug Addiction Helpline assists in accessing the best inpatient drug abuse treatment centers in the U.S. that specialize in delivering evidence-based intervention plans. Call our 24/7 helpline number (866) 403-5607 or chat online with our experts to know more about inpatient or outpatient drug abuse treatment centers.