Surveys Find Most Americans Not Worried About Painkiller Risks

By Pat Anson, Editor

Health officials, regulators and politicians have been warning for years about the so-called epidemic of prescription drug abuse in the U.S. But two new surveys show that most Americans are not as concerned about the abuse of pain medications and don’t want the government to restrict access to them.

A survey of over 1,000 Americans by the National Safety Council found that only 1 in 5 (19%) consider prescription pain medication a serious safety threat. Two-thirds of those taking opioids are not worried about side effects and only 12% are concerned about addiction.

The survey found broad support for opioids among those who take the medications.

  • 78% believe opioids are the fastest way to treat pain.
  • 71% believe opioids are the “best overall solution” for pain.
  • 69% believe opioids are the “most appropriate solution” for pain.
  • 52% believe opioids are safer than other pain medications.
  • 42% wrongly believe it is legal to share opioids with family and friends.

"Forty-five people die every day from overdosing on prescription painkillers," said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. "These medications are federally controlled substances and gateway drugs to heroin. Sharing drugs is never worth the risk, especially when non-addictive, over-the-counter pain relievers are often better options."

A second survey of 1,600 Americans, conducted by the non-profit Alliance for Aging Research, found an overwhelming majority opposes the government restricting access to medication that contains acetaminophen -- the world’s most widely used over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever.

Over 50 million people in the U.S. use acetaminophen each week for pain and fever – many not knowing the medication has long been associated with liver injury and allergic reactions such as skin rash. Over 50,000 emergency room visits each year in the U.S. are blamed on acetaminophen overdoses, including 25,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths.

The Food and Drug Administration has considered requiring a doctor’s prescription for acetaminophen products such as extra-strength Tylenol.  But the vast majority of survey participants disagree with the concept of restrictions.

  • 75% of those under age 60, and 70% of respondents over age 60, believe the FDA should not require a doctor's prescription to buy extra-strength Tylenol or an equivalent store brand.
  • 52% of those under age 60, and 45% over age 60, believe that requiring a prescription will make it more difficult to obtain safe pain medications.
  • Only 11% of those under age 60, and 19% over age 60, would go to a doctor for a prescription for acetaminophen.
  • 77% of those under age 60 and 68% of those over 60 prefer consumer education to government restriction as a way to protect people from acetaminophen overdose.

"The aging of our population means that more Americans will be faced with persistent pain," says Cynthia Bens, Vice President of Public Policy for the Alliance for Aging Research. "Potential barriers to OTC medication access may have unintended health consequences for seniors who rely on OTC pain relievers that contain acetaminophen to reduce their pain and maintain their quality of life."

The survey also offered insights into the amount of pain people experience:

  • More than 18% of respondents age 60 and over have bad or severe pain, while 37% have daily pain.
  • 70% of those aged 60 and over use OTC pain medication.
  • For those under age 60, bad or severe pain is experienced by 15%, while 25% experience daily pain.
  • 81% of those under age 60 use an OTC pain medication.

The FDA recommends taking no more than 4,000 mg of acetaminophen in a 24-hour period. In 2011 the agency asked drug makers to limit acetaminophen to 325 mg per tablet or capsule. The FDA also required a “Boxed Warning” label – the agency’s strongest warning – which is used to call attention to serious risks.