Over the past two decades, the rates of opioid abuse, addiction, and overdose have climbed steadily in the United States. According to most recent estimates, some 4.5 million Americans use prescription pain relievers (the majority of which are opioid analgesics) for nonmedical purposes, and 1.9 million nonmedical users are dependent on these drugs. Additionally, about 16,000 people are believed to die each year from overdose deaths involving these drugs—more than deaths caused by heroin and cocaine combined.
To better understand how this issue has been framed in public discourse, Emma McGinty, Ph.D., an assistant professor of health policy and management and mental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and colleagues analyzed 673 print and television news stories from 1998 to 2012.
About 57% of news stories that mentioned a cause for opioid abuse said that illegal drug dealing was the main cause. Physician-related causes were also frequently mentioned: 45% of news stories that noted any cause mentioned that it was easy to get a prescription for an opioid analgesic from a doctor, and 28% mentioned that doctors prescribe painkillers at inappropriately high doses or prescribe more pills than necessary.
Just over half (51%) of the news stories mentioned possible solutions to opioid analgesic abuse, with law enforcement efforts to arrest and prosecute drug dealers mentioned most frequently (64% of new stories). Only 3% and less than 1% of news stories mentioned expanding substance use treatment and harm-reduction policies, respectively, as potential solutions.
However, the authors noted, attitudes appeared to change over time. “The proportion of news stories mentioning law enforcement solutions decreased over the study period, from 70 percent in 1998–2000 to 57 percent in 2010–2012, and the proportion of stories mentioning prevention-oriented solutions increased from 10 percent in 1998–2000 to 55 percent in 2010–2012,” wrote McGinty and colleagues. “The findings underscore the need for a concerted effort to reframe opioid analgesic abuse as a treatable condition addressable via well-established public and behavioral health approaches.”
For more in Psychiatric News about opioid abuse, see “Opioid Use Found to Be Decreasing, While Opioid-Related Deaths Increase.” For additional information, read the recent blog post “How the APA Is Helping Address America’s Opioid Crisis,” by APA CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, M.D., M.P.A.
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