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The Dangerous Panic Over Painkillers

The media trumpets a crisis in Rx painkiller addiction, but only 1% of patients get hooked. The result? Doctors treat patients like addicts, while addicts escape responsibility.

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While use of prescription opioids for cancer and other end-of-life pain is increasingly accepted, if you are going to suffer in agony for years, rather than months, mercy is harder to find. Indeed, it seems  a given by the media that because addicts sometimes fake pain to get drugs, doctors should treat allpatients as likely liars—and if a physician is conned by an addict, the doctor has only herself to blame.

But do we really want our doctors to treat us as if we were guilty until proven innocent? Do we really want the routine use of invasive procedures—ranging from nerve conduction tests to repeated scans and surgeries—to “prove” we’re really hurting? And do we actually want physicians to be held  responsible for the actions of a patient who dissembles and does not take drugs as prescribed?

The answers to these questions are at the heart of the bizarre way we view synthetic opioid medications and the suffering of the 116 million Americans who have moderate to severe chronic pain, according to Institute of Medicine estimates.

In recent weeks, for example, New York  Sen. Charles Schumer, anti-drug abuse advocates and reporters have  inveighed against the potential FDA approval of an experimental opioid painkiller called Zohydro—professing to be horrified by the introduction of a new class of “100% pure” hydrocodone "superdrugs" that they have already dubbed "the next OxyContins." And many states are weighing laws like one now in place in Washington state, which limits the doses of opioids that can be used by chronic pain patients. 

When people consider the use of these medications in chronic pain, addiction fears are typically the first thing that comes up. Moreover, media coverage rarely includes the perspective of pain patients— or does so only to knock those who advocate for access to opioids as  pawns of the pharmaceutical industry.

If the press—often quoting leading public health officials like Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the CDC—is to be believed, the US is in the throes of an  “epidemic” of prescription painkiller abuse. Frieden even claimed at a recent press conference on opioid-related deaths that doctors are now more responsible than drug dealers for America's addiction problems. "The burden of dangerous drugs is being created more by a few irresponsible doctors than drug pushers on street corners," Friedman said. 

However, the opioid issue looks very different when you examine the numbers closely. For one, the rates of Americans addicted to OxyContin, Vicodin, percocet, fentanyl and other products in our synthetic narcotic medicine cabinet are not rising. In fact, they have been  steady at 0.8% since 2002, according to the government's own statistics.

Moreover, fewer than 1% of people over 30 (without a prior history of serious drug problems) become an addict while taking opioids; for chronic pain patients who are not screened for a history of previous drug problems, the addiction rate is 3.27%. That means, of course, that  more than 96% do not become addicted.

Yet these statistics usually go unmentioned in media accounts because they do not confirm the preferred panic narrative. Also left out is the fact that around 80% of Oxy addicts (a) did not obtain the drug via legitimate prescription for pain and/or (b) had a prior experience of rehab. Their contact with the medical system—if any—was not what caused their addictions.

So, the first thing the public really needs to know about what doctors call “iatrogenic addiction” is that it is extremely rare. If you’ve made it out of your 20s without becoming an addict, the chances that you will get hooked on pain treatment are miniscule—and even young people are not at high risk in most medical settings.