Too Few Aware of Opioid Risk

I.I.I. chief actuary Jim Lynch brings us some surprising numbers on America’s addiction to opioids:

Americans are grossly misinformed about the dangers of opioid drugs, according to a recent survey by the National Safety Council (NSC).

Opioids are commonly prescribed painkillers like Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet. The drugs are meant to mimic the nervous system actions of heroin and morphine and all too often lead to similar levels of addiction and suffering. More than 170,000 Americans have died from opioid overdoses this century, nearly triple the number of U.S. military deaths in Vietnam (see my earlier post).

I wrote about the epidemic in Contingencies magazine, focusing on the toll the drugs have taken in the workers compensation system.

Too few Americans are aware of this risk, according to the survey of 1,014 adults, reported in the March 24 edition of Workers’ Compensation Report. Just one in five considered opioids to be a serious safety threat. Only 12 percent said addiction was a concern; two-thirds were unconcerned about any side effects from the drugs.

Education is part of the problem. Only 29 percent of respondents said they had taken or been prescribed an opioid in the past three years, though the number jumped to 42 percent once they were provided with a list of common opioids.

Nearly 60 percent of users had at least one addiction risk factor. Common risk factors include alcoholism, depression, use of psychiatric medication or being the victim of physical, mental or sexual abuse.

Users held opioids in high esteem. For example, 78 percent said they were the fastest method of pain relief, 74 percent said they were stronger pain relievers than alternative prescriptions, and 71 percent said they were the best way to relieve pain.

They underestimate the risk. Though 16,235 people died from prescription drug overdoses in 2013, just 19 percent of survey respondents said they had major concerns about the risk of injury or death from the drugs.

That’s less concern than they had about injury or death from severe weather or a natural disaster, from which 586 people died in 2013, and about the same level of concern as riding in a commercial airliner in the U.S., an activity that in 2013 killed eight, roughly 0.5 percent as many as opioids.

Details on the NSC survey can be found here.

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