Over-Prescribing Prescription Painkillers Fuels Rise in Heroin Use

Below is an editorial by Steve and Elaine Pozycki. They are Board members of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey with Elaine serving as Co-Chair. 

The Centers from Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) July report documents a disturbing increase in heroin use. The use of this highly addictive and dangerous drug is  now expanding  to  all demographic groups. In fact, the most rapid expansion of heroin use and addiction is now occurring among segments of the population that up until recently were not as impacted: women, and people with higher incomes.  This signals a disturbing widening of a problem that had already reached epidemic proportions.  Deaths from heroin overdoses have tripled over the past several years with more than 8,000 people now dying annually.

The largest single driver of the dramatic rise in heroin use and addiction is the over-prescribing of opiate-based prescription painkillers. Research shows that people who abuse or are dependent on prescription opiate painkillers are 40 times more likely to abuse or be dependent on heroin.  This is because heroin is also opiate-based.  When people who become addicted to prescription pain killers can no longer get this medication they often turn to heroin—its illegal street cousin.  They work on the exact same brain receptors. 

Over the past twenty years, there has been a three-fold increase in the number of prescriptions issued for opiate-based pain relievers; 259 million prescriptions were written in 2012 alone. Heroin use is increasing at an alarming rate in many parts of society, driven by both the prescription opioid epidemic and cheaper, more available heroin,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “

Practicing physicians overwhelmingly agree that in spite of the mounting damage, these drugs are still being over-prescribed. In a national poll conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 85 percent of doctors said opiate-based painkillers are overused.

And according to a  poll of primary care physicians--the top prescribers of prescription painkillers--also conducted by The School of Public Health, “many primary care physicians don’t understand basic facts about how people may abuse the drugs or how addictive different formulations of the medications can be”  The study leader and co-director of the school’s Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness, G. Caleb Alexander M.D said,  “Doctors continue to overestimate the effectiveness of prescription pain medications and underestimate their risks, and that’s why we are facing such a public health crisis.”

These findings illustrate the importance of providing patients with real information about the risks of addiction.  There is a bill currently being considered in the New Jersey State Legislature that, if adopted, will be a major step in the right direction in this area.

The patient notification bill put forward by Sens. Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen) and Joe Vitale (D., Middlesex) provides adult patients and parents of younger patients with   information about the addictive potential of these drugs The bill requires doctors and other prescribers to discuss the potential risks of dependency before writing a prescription.

Supplying these facts would ensure that medical consumers are in a position to make informed decisions about whether to use these drugs or non-addictive alternatives. And consumers want the facts. A recent Fairleigh Dickinson University Public Mind Poll showed that 91 percent of New Jerseyans agree that this kind of doctor-patient conversation should be required.

The patient notification bill passed the state Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support late last year. but Assembly Health Committee Chair Herb Conaway continues to hold up further progress on the legislation. Conaway, a physician, did not schedule a hearing or put this critical measure up for a committee vote before the Legislature moved to its dramatically reduced summer schedule, despite having more than 6 months in which to do so.

This common sense measure deserves an up or done vote in the Assembly—one that we are very confident that we will win overwhelmingly. New Jersey residents have the right to know when a Prescription they are being prescribed can be addictive and what alternates are a available to them."  It is time to change the prescription practices fueling the prescription painkiller and heroin epidemic—before more lives are ruined and even lost.

 

Elaine and Steve Pozycki are Board members of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey with Elaine serving as Co-Chair. Steve Pozcyki is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of SJP Properties

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