Most Americans Touched by Opioid Abuse

By Pat Anson, Editor

Over half of Americans say they know someone who has abused, been addicted to, or died from an overdose of opioid pain medication, according to a new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The survey also found a surprising awareness among many Americans that it is easier for abusers to get access to opioids than it is for pain sufferers. Three out of four (77%) believe it is easy for people to get access to prescription opioids without a prescription.  

“The perception among the public is that the balance is currently in the abuser’s favor. More of the public says it’s easy for people to get access to painkillers not prescribed to them than say it is easy for people who medically need them,” the Kaiser report says.

Over half (58%) of Americans believe it is very easy or somewhat easy to get prescription opioids for medical purposes.

Over a third (40%) believe it is somewhat difficult or very difficult for a patient to get an opioid prescription.

Kaiser surveyed over 1,350 Americans adults by telephone in mid-November for its monthly tracking poll. For the first time the survey included questions about the public’s awareness and attitude about painkiller abuse.

The survey found that whites were far more likely than African-Americans or Hispanics to have a “personal connection” to the abuse of opioids. Nearly two thirds (63%) of whites said they know someone who has abused, been addicted to, or died from an overdose of painkillers. That compares to 44% of African-Americans and 37% of Hispanics.

That finding appears to support evidence of a surprising spike in the death rate of middle aged white Americans that was uncovered by two Princeton University researchers. They estimate that nearly half a million white baby boomers died early between 1999 and 2013, coinciding with a spike in the prescribing of opioid painkillers. Financial stress, pain and disability are also believed to have played a role in the those deaths.

Other findings in the Kaiser survey:

  • 16% of Americans know someone who has died from a prescription opioid overdose
  • 9% know a family member or close friend who died from an opioid overdose
  • 27% know someone who has been addicted to opioids
  • 2% admit they are addicted to opioids  
  • 45% know someone who has taken an opioid not prescribed for them
  • 6% admit taking an opioid not prescribed for them

The survey also found that the public was divided over the role government should have in addressing prescription painkiller abuse. Over a third (36%) believe the federal government should be primarily responsible, while 39% believe state government and 16% believe local government should be responsible for solving the problem.