‘Trapped in a Bottle’ Billboard Misses the Mark

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

The mission of The Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey (PDFNJ) is to reduce substance use and misuse in New Jersey. The non-profit has received more than 200 advertising and public relations awards for its public service campaigns.

Much of the organization’s work is laudable, but their new "Trapped in a Bottle" campaign spreads misleading and harmful information about opioid medication.

Digital billboards of a man or woman trapped in a prescription bottle appeared in Times Square and on mass transit. The billboards end with a warning: “In just 5 days, opioid dependency can begin.”

Physical Dependence vs. Addiction

The ad talks about dependency, but it conflates dependency with addiction.

Physical dependence is a process that starts with exposure to the first pill. Discontinuance of an opioid may lead to withdrawal — but the hyperbolic ad can easily be mistaken to be about addiction rather than dependency.

Dependency is a normal neuroadaptation that takes place when certain brain receptors are exposed to drugs, including opioids. These drugs change the structure and function of a receptor with continual exposure, and that can result in physical dependence. If the drugs are abruptly stopped, that can cause withdrawal.

Using opioid medication for as little as five days will almost never induce withdrawal. And even if withdrawal occurs after taking a short course of opioids, it does not mean the person is addicted or has an opioid-use disorder.

The "5 days" concept is meaningless because it spreads unhelpful myths about opioids. I have prescribed opioids to thousands of patients and have never seen a patient experience withdrawal when stopping within a week or even two. Managed properly, the overwhelming majority of patients experience no negative effects from dependency.

Addiction, on the other hand, requires much more than simply ingesting a pill, and it does not occur in any specific number of days. The development of this disease is a process that involves multiple factors and occurs over time.

It is important to remember that addiction is not resident in the drug, but rather in human biology. Exposure to an opioid is a necessary, but by itself is insufficient to cause the disease.

For people who develop an addiction, opioids provide a reward, and the brain seeks to repeat the pleasurable experience. For a vulnerable person, one pill can be so rewarding that it drives pleasure-seeking behavior that can lead to addiction. But that does not happen in five days or on any other timetable.

This is not the first time PDFNJ has created over-the-top digital billboards to scare people away from using prescription opioids.

A 2016 billboard intended to frighten parents asked: "Would you give your child HEROIN to remove a wisdom tooth?"

This melodramatic question was followed with: “Ask your dentist how prescription drugs can lead to heroin abuse." The innuendo is neither educational nor informative.

It's understandable that an advertising agency would have trouble accurately conveying the problems of drug dependence and addiction when the news media also has difficulty communicating the facts.

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Inaccurate Portrayal of the Opioid Crisis

In a recent WPIX article describing the “Trapped in a Bottle” campaign, Mary Murphy wrote that “drug overdoses killed more than 72,000 people in the United States in 2017, a new record driven by the deadly opioid crisis.”

Murphy used the statistic to help illustrate the harm of prescription opioids. But prescription opioids were involved in less than 20,000 of those drug deaths. If Murphy wanted to use a large number, she should have said there were 150,000 deaths from substance abuse in 2018. This would include alcohol-related deaths. Of course, alcohol delivers its poison in a bottle, too.

Murphy writes that a large percentage of drug overdoses can be attributed to heroin or fentanyl. Indeed, these are major sources of opioid deaths, but she fails to point out that neither heroin or illicit fentanyl are prescription opioids. Nor are they commonly found in a bottle. Again, her implication is that prescription opioids are at the heart of this crisis.

Concepts Video Productions, which is based in Towaco, New Jersey, produced the digital billboard. “Each year, we select a pro-bono project that will impact the world,” said Collette Liantonio, creative director of the production company.

The “Trapped in a Bottle” billboard, however, may do nothing for the world besides demonstrate how imperfectly most people understand the reason for the drug crisis and reinforce prevalent myths about it.

Perhaps Concepts Video Productions should consider creating a billboard that shows someone who is unable to find a job that pays a decent wage, and seeks to escape poverty and hopelessness with drugs. Economic and social woes, rather than prescription drugs, are at the core of our country's drug crisis.

Or perhaps Concepts Video Productions should create a giant digital billboard full of people with chronic pain who can’t get out of bed because their doctors refuse to prescribe the medication they need.

Using fear to solve the drug crisis will never be successful.

Moreover, knowing a drug's potential to lead to physical dependence or addiction will not prevent anyone from seeking a psychological experience to escape painful life experiences. The answer is to address the emotional and physical needs that create dependency or addiction in the first place.

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. Lynn is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, author of the award-winning book “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary “It Hurts Until You Die.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

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.