It's a Myth America Consumes 80% of World’s Opioids

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

Getting the facts right about the opioid crisis is essential. And the claim that the United States consumes 80% of the world’s supply of opioid medication -- while having only 5% of the world’s population -- is incorrect.

This “80/5” claim is popular and persistent. Senator Claire McCaskill tweeted about it last year. Recently Consumer Safety and the Reporter Newspapers repeated it. And news organizations like The Guardian, Business Insider, CNN and ABC News have all reported the “80/5” claim as fact at various times. 

The truth is that Americans consumed only about 30% of the world’s opioid medication in 2015. And the U.S. has about 4.4% of the world’s population.  That's still a lot, but nowhere near "80/5."

So where does the claim that the U.S. consumes 80% of the world’s opioids come from? It took a little digging to find out.

In 2014, Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, submitted the following testimony to the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control:

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"The number of prescriptions for opioids (like hydrocodone and oxycodone products) have escalated from around 76 million in 1991 to nearly 207 million in 2013, with the United States their biggest consumer globally, accounting for almost 100 percent of the world total for hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin) and 81 percent for oxycodone."

A footnote reveals where Volkow got that information. It came from a 2008 report from the International Narcotics Control Board, which states:

“In 2008 the United States accounted for over 99 per cent of the global consumption of hydrocodone and 83 per cent of the global consumption of oxycodone.”

This ultimately seems to be the origin of the “80 percent” part of the claim. At one time, the U.S. was responsible for over 80% of the world’s consumption of one particular type of opioid medication: oxycodone.

But the numbers vary significantly for each type of opioid. According to the Global Commission on Drugs, the U.S. consumed 57.3% of the world’s morphine in 2013. And Statista reports that in 2015 the U.S. consumed 29.3% of the world’s supply of prescription fentanyl, followed closely by Germany at 23.7 percent.

The U.S. at one time did consume 99% of the world’s supply of hydrocodone. But as a Pain Medicine article by Mark Rose explains, that is because “other countries with adequate opioid access prefer dihydrocodeine or low-dose morphine to hydrocodone for moderate to moderately severe pain.”

Hydrocodone prescriptions have actually plummeted in the U.S. since 2014, when it was rescheduled by the DEA as a Schedule II controlled substance.

So what are the real numbers for opioid consumption?

As Politifact notes while debunking McKaskill’s “80/5” claim, “while the United States is clearly the largest consumer of opioids, it, at most, accounts for roughly 30 percent of global consumption.”

At present, however, there are opioid shortages in some hospitals and hospices. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported that morphine, hydromorphone (Dilaudid), and fentanyl — staples of pain control and sedation in hospital settings — are in short supply.

“The shortage of hydromorphone is beyond acute,” Beverly Philip, vice president of scientific affairs for the American Society of Anesthesiologists, told the Inquirer.

The shortage is due, in part, because the DEA has lowered annual production quotas for fentanyl, hydromorphone, and morphine over the last two years by 35 to 46 percent.

This demonstrates the risk of persistent false claims. As Sally Patel, MD, wrote in an excellent Politico piece about the opioid crisis: “We need to make good use of what we know about the role that prescription opioids plays in the larger crisis.”

Otherwise we’ll find ourselves awash in a false narrative while enduring very real pain.

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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.