Survey: Painkillers Bigger Problem than Alcohol

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new poll is adding further fuel to the fire over opioid abuse and the disproportionate amount of attention it gets compared to other health problems.

The survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that two-thirds of Americans consider the abuse of opioid pain medication an extremely or very serious problem. And four out of ten said they knew someone who was addicted to prescription painkillers, often a close friend or family member.

The problem is so serious that more Americans now consider painkillers a bigger problem than alcohol (66% vs. 57%), even though four times as many Americans die from alcohol related causes than from opioids.

Nearly 19,000 Americans died from prescription opioids in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Institutes of Health estimates 88,000 people die annually from alcohol related causes.

Alcohol misuse is also estimated by NIH to cost the U.S. economy nearly $250 billion annually, while the “economic burden” of opioid abuse was estimated by the DEA at $53 billion in 2011.   

The Kaiser Foundation poll comes in the middle of an election season, as the White House and Congress consider various funding measures to address the so-called epidemic of opioid abuse and addiction.

The survey found that a large majority of Americans believe federal and state governments, doctors, and individuals who use prescription opioids are not doing enough to fight opioid addiction. Only about a third said police officers weren’t doing enough to enforce drug laws, a sign that many Americans don’t consider opioid abuse just a law enforcement issue.

Asked which policy efforts would be very or somewhat effective in reducing opioid abuse, over eight in ten said doctors and medical students should have better training in pain management and that there should be increased access to addiction treatment programs.  Less than half said putting warning labels on prescription opioids explaining the risk of addiction would be effective. Respondents were not asked if access to opioid pain medication should be reduced.

Policies Rated Very or Somewhat Effective in Fighting Opioid Abuse

  • 88% Increase pain management training
  • 86% Increase access to addiction treatment
  • 84% Public education and awareness programs
  • 83% Increase research about pain and pain management
  • 82% Monitor doctors’ prescribing habits
  • 63% Encourage disposal of extra pain meds
  • 60% Reduce stigma of opioid addiction
  • 48% Put addiction warning labels on opioid bottles

Putting the issue in perspective, while most Americans consider painkiller abuse a serious problem, the issue ranks well behind several other health problems such as cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Health Problems Considered Extremely or Very Serious

  • 86% Cancer
  • 78% Diabetes
  • 74% Lack of access to mental healthcare
  • 73% Obesity
  • 72% Heart disease
  • 71% Contaminated drinking water
  • 70% Heroin abuse
  • 66% Painkiller abuse
  • 61% Lack of access to healthcare
  • 57% Environmental contamination
  • 57% Alcohol abuse
  • 54% Lack of access to affordable food

The Kaiser Foundation survey was conducted in mid-April in a random telephone sample of 1,201 American adults. The poll is estimated to have a sampling error of 3 percent.

To see the complete results of the Kaiser poll, click here.