The Media’s Addiction to Opioids

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

A recent and very brief CDC report described 59 pneumonia deaths in Minnesota between 2006 and 2015 that involved opioids. The gist of the study was that “opioid users are at increased risk for pneumonia” and therefore the deaths should have been reported as opioid related overdoses, even though the autopsy reports list pneumonia as the cause of death.

Vox said the study suggests “the opioid epidemic may be even deadlier than we think,” while the Daily Mail warned it was “just the tip of the iceberg” and that “we may have grossly underestimated the scale of the opioid epidemic.”

JAMA Surgery also recently published a study, which found that about 6 percent of surgery patients continued to use opioids more than three months after their surgery.

U.S. News cited the study to proclaim that “Many Opioid Addictions Surface After Surgery,” while MedicalXpress said it was proof that someone could go “from opioid-free to long-term user, in one operation.”

Both the CDC report and the JAMA Surgery study were grossly misrepresented. Fear sells, and the opioid crisis has become a favorite source of fear-mongering in the media.

The CDC report is a one page, four-paragraph document released by the agency’s Epidemic intelligence Service (EIS). It never mentions the words “addiction” or “epidemic,” yet it leaps to one very big conclusion.

“The total burden of opioid-associated deaths was underestimated in Minnesota,” the report says. “The contributions of opioid toxicity, infectious disease, or their interactions to death are challenging to disentangle; understanding these interactions might inform future opioid-related mortality prevention efforts.”

The JAMA Surgery article is a retrospective study which found an association between post-operative use of opioid medications for pain management and patient history of smoking and alcohol use. The study looked at opioid abuse only as an exclusion criteria for the patient population; it was not a study about addiction in any form. The JAMA article concludes by saying that “new persistent opioid use represents a common but previously underappreciated surgical complication that warrants increased awareness.”

In other words, we have intriguing results that should be investigated further, with the ultimate goal of improving public health and welfare. Unfortunately, all that is lost in the alarmist media coverage that mischaracterizes the findings, over-interprets the data, and extrapolates consequences to reach what at best are highly premature conclusions.

In its coverage of the CDC report, CNN quoted EIS officer Victoria Hall, DVM, as saying that the Minnesota data represents “an iceberg of an epidemic.” 

Keep in mind that Hall is not an epidemiologist, an infectious disease specialist or an expert on icebergs. She is a veterinarian by training and a recent graduate of Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. Hall has been working for the CDC less than a year, according to her LinkedIn profile.

In a CDC media briefing, Hall refers to only one specific case in Minnesota: a middle-aged man dying of pneumonia, who was on opioid therapy for chronic back pain. This case is not mentioned in the CDC EIS report. His death may be an important hint of a new facet of the opioid crisis, or it may be an anomalous outcome. More work is needed to figure out what is really going on. For now, it bears remembering that the plural of anecdote is not data.

VICTORIA HALL, DVM

VICTORIA HALL, DVM

Similarly, U.S. News reported on the JAMA Surgery article by stating that, “Some surgery patients prescribed opioids for post-operative pain relief may face a high risk for developing a long-term opioid addiction, new research warns.” This report also appeared on Philly.com  and on WebMD , spreading the misinformation about addiction risks, which were never even mentioned in the article.

In other words, there was a huge and speculative leap from the data in the CDC report about 59 opioid-related pneumonia deaths over a decade-long period all the way to a stealth epidemic sweeping the nation. And an equally large jump from an association between the duration of post-surgical opioid use and patient social history to a new source of opioid addiction.

The sensible response is to call for further research. For the CDC, this means collecting data from all 50 states about otherwise unexplained deaths and seeing if opioids are involved in any of them, then following up with analysis on possible under-reporting. For the world of surgery, this means performing prospective trials to see if the reported association holds up, and then investigating if such use increases the odds of a patient developing opioid use disorder.

For now, we just don’t have the data to figure out what is going on. And as Sherlock Holmes says: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.”

Roger Chriss suffers from Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society.

Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.