Education and Regulation are the Prescription for Pill Abuse
The Global Drug Survey is an annual questionnaire that seeks to assess current drug use in
America. In 2012 one quarter of respondents who’d been given an opioid prescription had used their medications for non-medical reasons during the previous year. Opioid drugs are powerful pain relievers similar to morphine and heroin.
Before the 90s opioid use was rare. Concerns over tolerance and addiction kept the strong analgesics reserved for treating things like terminal cancer and chronic pain with little hope of recovery. A series of short-term studies were used at the time to suggest that opioids could be safely used to treat other kinds of non-cancer pain. Within a brief couple of decades opioid use was skyrocketing.
The growing popularity of opioids is in part attributable to pharmaceutical companies marketing directly to customers rather than going only through physicians. This practice of direct drug marketing is a relatively new phenomenon.
To give a picture of just how widespread the problem of opioid abuse has become, in 2002 opioids were beginning to be recognized as more of a problem than either heroin or cocaine. By 2004 there were more overdose deaths from opioids than either cocaine or heroin, and from 1999-2006 overdose fatalities from opioids increased three-fold. And the numbers have continued to grow.
Winstock compares big pharmaceutical makers of opioid drugs to alcohol manufacturers. Both market directly to consumers. Both also denounce efforts to increase regulation but are willing to foot the bill for greater education, with pharmaceutical companies sponsoring as much as 80 percent of doctor education. Hardly anyone has missed the end of alcohol commercials which, after depicting the enormous fun of drinking, tell people to drink responsibly.
The bottom line is that when there are more prescription drugs in the environment, abuse rates go up. One simple regulatory change would be to prohibit direct-to-consumer drug marketing. Other regulations for doctors would help too, but reversing public demand isn’t going to be simple.