The Opioid Blame Game

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

Nearly 40 years after it was published, a short letter to the editor in The New England Journal of Medicine is today being blamed by various media outlets for having “kicked off” or “fueled” or “sparked” the opioid epidemic.

The one paragraph letter, written by researchers at Boston University Medical Center, has attracted media attention because of a new letter to the editor by Canadian academics Pamela Leung, Erin Macdonald, MD, PhD, Irfan Dhalia, MD, and David Juurlink, MD, PhD. They claim that the 1980 letter “was heavily and uncritically cited as evidence that addiction was rare with long-term opioid therapy.”

The authors are not the first to notice this. The New Yorker made the same claim in 2013, to little effect.

Now, however, the media has latched onto the 1980 letter’s statement that “addiction is rare in medical patients with no history of addiction,” by declaring it to be the spark that ignited an explosion of opioid overdoses and deaths.

If only it were that simple.

The opioid epidemic has already been blamed on OxyContin and Purdue Pharma, drug seeking pain patients, physician overprescribing and pill mills, and even a small study by Russell Portenoy, MD, in 1986.

But conspicuously absent are many other contributing factors, including:

  • Managed healthcare looking for cheap treatment options
  • Health insurers pushing to reduce healthcare costs
  • Employers expecting workers to return to work sooner
  • Patients wanting a quick pain cure

Another commonly cited villain is the campaign to treat pain as the "5th Vital Sign.” But that did not occur in a vacuum. The rise of chronic pain paralleled increasing levels of acute pain, for reasons such as:

  • Better trauma care for car crash and gunshot victims
  • Early and aggressive cancer care
  • Increasing rates of diabetic neuropathy and amputation
  • More injection therapy and surgery to treat damage and deterioration in the spine and joints

Medical care improved in many important ways in the 1980’s, including the advent of minimally invasive surgery and chemotherapy for a wide variety of cancers, as well as the discovery of drugs that turned once deadly diseases like AIDS and leukemia into chronic conditions that could be medically managed. There have also been many well-intentioned attempts to treat increasingly common degenerative diseases and disorders that may have caused more pain in some patients.

In other words, there is plenty of blame to go around. But media coverage ignores these larger issues.

Instead, CNN draws a parallel between the 1980 letter and a lawsuit filed last week by Ohio’s Attorney General against five opioid manufacturers. And the CBC’s coverage includes a link to a 2011 YouTube video produced by the anti-opioid activist group Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), perhaps because David Juurlink himself is on the PROP Board of Directors. An old lecture on the evils of opioids is beside the point here

The real question here is: Does finger pointing at a NEJM letter from 1980 help people today who are suffering from opioid addiction?

The research literature on opioid addiction in the 1970’s and 80’s strongly resembles today’s efforts. Even high school health classes back then discussed methadone clinics and medication-assisted treatment, the importance of long-term maintenance therapy, and the value of safe injection sites and needle exchange programs for heroin users.

This leads to a far more important question: Why aren’t we using these treatments more widely?

This blame game isn’t helping opioid addicts. As media reports identify the 1980 letter as another target of blame for the opioid crisis, we should be asking why we’ve made so little progress since then in treating addiction.

Roger Chriss lives with 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.