Half of Americans Say Painkiller Abuse 'Serious Problem'

By Pat Anson, Editor

Over half of all Americans believe the abuse of a prescription painkillers is an extremely or very serious problem, according to a new poll by the Boston Globe and Harvard School of Public Health that documents the widespread concern – and misconceptions – the public has about opioid pain medication.

While nearly half (45%) believe painkillers are prescribed too often or in doses that are bigger than necessary, a majority (51%) believe that current regulations on the prescribing and availability of opioid pain medication are about right.  

Less than a third (29%) believe that regulations make prescription painkillers too easy for people to get.

The telephone poll of over 1,000 adults, which was conducted in mid-April, found that most Americans were more concerned about prescription painkiller abuse than they were about heroin.

Nearly one in four (39%) said they knew someone who had abused pain medication.

"For much of the public, the issue of prescription painkiller abuse is not just a remote concern; it's a problem they see in their personal lives," said Robert J. Blendon, a professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

People who know someone who has abused prescription painkillers hold different views about the problem than those who do not. They are significantly more likely to think painkiller abuse is an extremely or very serious problem (64% vs. 43%) and that the problem has gotten worse over the past five years (56% vs. 28%).

Of those who have known someone who has had an abuse problem, a majority say it has had a major harmful effect on the user's family life (67%), work life (58%), and health (55%). In addition, 21% say that the person's abuse of prescription painkillers led to their death.

Although studies have found that only a small percentage of pain patients become addicted to opioids, many Americans believe it is easy to get hooked on them. Nearly half of those surveyed (44%) say it is “very likely” that a person taking prescription painkillers will become addicted.

About one in five (21%) of the survey respondents said they had taken a prescription painkiller in the past two years. Of those, one in four (26%) reported they had been very or somewhat concerned that they could become addicted. Nearly two-thirds (61%) said they had talked to their doctor about the risk of addiction.

You can view the complete poll findings here.

While many respondents (39%) believe prescription painkiller abuse has gotten worse over the last five years, there are signs it has been abating.

Hydrocodone prescriptions fell by 8% last year and it is no longer the most widely prescribed medication in the U.S.

A recent report by a large national health insurer found that total opioid dispensing declined by 19% from 2010 to 2012 and the overdose rate dropped by 20 percent.