Drug Addiction Higher Among Small-Town Residents in British Columbia

Posted on October 20th, 2009

A recent University of British Columbia (UBC) study suggests that working-age residents in rural and small towns in British Columbia have a greater risk of addiction to prescription sedatives and opioid painkillers than people in more urban areas.

The Ubyssey’s Jim Boyle writes that the study, published by the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research, is the first to map small-area prescription drug use with as many variables, analyzed data from British Columbia’s sophisticated PharmaNet system to measure and compare prescription drug use across regional health areas, taking into account the age and health of patients taking the drugs.

The study was built on the knowledge that British Columbia uses fewer prescription medications compared to other provinces and sought to understand where and why variations in use of prescription drugs exist within the province.

“It’s sort of a good news, mixed news, and bad news story,” said Dr. Steve Morgan, lead researcher and author of the study.

“One of the pieces of good news that was actually somewhat surprising [compared to other provinces]…was that for the stuff that matters most (e.g. heart attack and stroke medication) you don’t have big variations,” he said.

The study found significant variations among regions for use of discretionary drugs such as those used to treat depression, with the lowest concentration being found in areas in which there are large populations of Asian immigrants, possibly due to use of alternative medicines that are not logged in the PharmaNet system.

Yet more concerning is the finding that prescription sedatives are being used more than necessary throughout British Columbia and that people of working age in rural areas have a higher risk factor of becoming addicted to opioid analgesics such as morphine and oxycodone.

“With respect to [the sedatives], in all regions patients appear to be getting more of these drugs than would be deemed safe and appropriate,” he said, adding that in 2006, patients took these drugs for 100 days within a given year. “At that rate, you can be sure that the patients are now addicted to those treatments.”

There is also a greater than expected use of opioids within rural communities, but Morgan is not concerned about them being abused at the street level.

“If that was true you’d expect more drug use within Vancouver and particularly Downtown Vancouver. We don’t see that,” he said. Instead, Morgan believes that the connection is more innocent, stemming from the fact that workers in smaller British Columbia communities work in industries such as mining or millworking where there is a high risk of personal injury, and become addicted after being prescribed drugs to manage the resulting pain.

“There is a place for these medicines [but] what we want to be cautious of is managing long term use of these drugs,” he said.

“We want to support both the doctor and the patient with a plan to make sure you know that they’re going to be coming off these drugs, that they’re not going to be staying on them.”

To address the issue, Morgan recommended better education for doctors and targeted campaigns not just for senior citizens, but for patients in their 40s and 50s, who are at the highest risk of addiction.

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