- Study: New Jerseyans 'not very concerned' about opioids


A new study found that most New Jerseyans are "not very concerned" about the dangers of prescription opioid medication.

Nearly half of New Jersey residents who participated in the recent Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey (PDFNJ) study report little or no concern about the potential dangers of prescription pain medication to themselves or a family member.

The study, conducted in December 2017 by Itzhak Yanovitzky from the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University, in collaboration with the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, found that despite drug overdoses being the leading cause of accidental deaths in the United States, respondents were more concerned with driving accidents, gun violence, infectious disease and severe weather as potential causes of injury or death.

“It is alarming that more than half of the respondents either are not aware of the potential tragic effects of prescription opioid misuse or believe that they and their families are immune to those dangers,” PDFNJ Executive Director Angelo Valente said.

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“While progress has been made in educating New Jersey residents about the links between prescription opioids and heroin use, there is still a long way to go for the levels of awareness and action to match the devastating consequences this epidemic is having on our state and nation.”

The survey sampled 774 adults. Only about 17 percent of survey respondents indicated they were very concerned about the risks of prescription opioids, and 29 percent said they were somewhat concerned.

More than half of all respondents, however, said they are not very concerned or not concerned at all about the risk of prescription opioid addiction, according to the study. An estimated 2,000 people in New Jersey died of opioid overdoses in 2016.

READ: Local pain management doctor Q&A on opioids

“It appears that many adults in the state underestimate the risks posed by prescription opioids, which are killing more people in New Jersey than guns, car accidents and suicides combined,” Yanovitzky said.   


Lesley Gabel, co-chief executive officer of Safe Communities Coalition of Hunterdon and Somerset, said that the results of the study are "certainly concerning, as 64,000 Americans died last year to a drug overdose," adding that 63 percent of these were due to opioids. 

She said that research has shown that 4 out of 5 new heroin users started with prescription opioids and that many people do not make the connection between prescription opioids and heroin.  

"Prescription opioids were commonly prescribed for many years for managing pain, leaving home medicine cabinets filled with these drugs resulting in access and availability," she said. "Most people are not aware of how highly addictive these drugs are."

EmPoWER Somerset, a nonprofit organization encouraging prevention of drug abuse, has been working to increase the perception of harm and raise awareness about the addictive nature of prescription painkillers, according to the group's executive director, Brenda Esler.

"People sometimes do not realize how similar in make up prescription opiates are to illegal heroin," she said. "They both essentially activate the same receptors in the brain.  Addiction to prescription painkillers is possible even when someone starts out with a prescription for a legitimate reason."

READ: Rutgers, state and Middlesex County unveil plans to combat opioid epidemic

She said that once someone becomes addicted to opiates, "an individual develops tolerance and will go through physical withdrawal when use is stopped."

Esler also said that when it becomes too difficult and expensive to maintain an addiction to prescription pills, people may turn to heroin because it is cheaper and works the same way in preventing withdrawal.

"When painkillers are prescribed to teens for reasons such as tooth extraction, surgery or sports injuries, we work to raise awareness among parents that they should hold the prescription and supervise the dosage rather than let their teen have unsupervised use of the medications," she said. 

"Some parents do not realize that this is a simple preventative measure they can take, or even that they should. We also work to raise awareness about the importance of cleaning out home medicine cabinets through the permanent prescription drop boxes located throughout Somerset County."

Nicki Francis, a preventionist Wellspring Center for Prevention in East Brunswick, said that she is not so surprised that the survey showed little or no concern about the potential dangers of prescription pain medication to themselves or a family member. 

"Unfortunately, many people have a 'It can’t or won’t happen to me or anyone I love' mentality," she said. "Many people do not understand the connection to Rx medications especially pain medication and opioid drug misuse or abuse. I believe if people understood the connection they would be more concerned. I believe education is very important."

A nationwide study, conducted last year by the National Safety Council, that asked similar questions, found that 41 percent of respondents did not consider prescription pain medication as a potential cause of injury or death to themselves or their family. 

READ: Opioid abuse is in everyone's backyard

Of the 59 percent that expressed concern, 41 percent had “minimal concern” about the effects of prescription opioids.

The PDFNJ study also revealed that about one-third of all respondents were prescribed opioid painkillers during the past three years, but one-fourth of them opted not to take the medication.

About 57 percent of respondents who were prescribed opioid painkillers obtained the prescription following a non-work-related injury, surgery or outpatient procedure such as the extraction of a wisdom tooth, according to the study. Of those prescribed pain medication, only about 25 percent said they were concerned about getting addicted to opioid painkillers.

About half reported being more concerned about non-life-threatening side effects, such as grogginess and upset stomach.

The findings of the survey point to significant misperceptions regarding the individuals or groups most likely to be victimized by prescription opioid addiction.

Whereas many respondents correctly perceive that about anyone who uses prescription opioids is at risk for addiction, a little more than half of all respondents still believe that individuals with addictive personality, those with a family history of drug addiction, and individuals with mental illness are the most likely to develop addiction.