Billboard Highlights Dangers of Underage Opioid Abuse in Massachusetts

By Paul Gaita 03/29/17

The billboard's bold message underscores the growing problem of opioid abuse by adolescents who have been prescribed painkillers.

Would You Give Your Child Heroin For A Sports Injury? Billboard in Massachusetts
Photo via YouTube

Drivers in Massachusetts are being confronted with a thorny question as they cross the South End Bridge from the city of Springfield to Agawam: a billboard posted there asks, "Would you give your child heroin for a sports injury?"

Though blunt, the message underscores the growing problem of opioid abuse by teenagers and even children who are prescribed painkillers by medical professionals. 

A new study, published online in Pediatrics on March 20, found that between the years 2000 and 2015, poison control centers in the United States received more than 188,000 reports of prescription opioid exposure among children under the age of 20. "Therapeutic error"—which is to say, incorrect dosage or wrong medication—was a factor in many of these cases; among children between the ages of six and 12, more than half of poison control center calls were due to therapeutic error.

During the period analyzed by the study, the researchers found that the frequency and rate of opioid exposures among children under the age of 20 increased between 2000 and 2009, after which the rates began to decline.

According to their findings, the increase was "likely driven by increased opioid prescribing in the United States, with the number of opioid prescriptions dispensed by U.S. retail pharmacies increasing from 126 million in 2000 to 219 million in 2011 before declining to 207 million in 2013."

The researchers ascribed the decline to a number of factors, including the CDC's PROTECT Initiative which brought together public health agencies, consumer advocates and private sector companies to formulate strategies to keep children safe from accidental medication overdoses. The Drug Enforcement Administration's decision to label hydrocodone combination products—such as OxyContin, fentanyl, Dilaudid and Demerol—as Schedule II controlled substances was also viewed as a contributing factor.

Despite such deterrents, opioid-related overdose deaths continue to climb each year, with 2015 figures—more than 33,000 that year alone—the highest number to date. As a result, health professionals and legislators alike are looking to reduce opioid prescriptions for patients; the American Dental Association issued new guidelines for pain management, and four states, including Massachusetts, have either implemented or are considering non-opioid directives which would allow patients to refuse opioid pain management by doctors.

Pediatricians are also following suit. Dr. John O'Reilly of Baystate Children's Hospital said that doctors should opt for non-prescription analgesic treatment like Tylenol for younger patients. "Those kids that say, in the past, might have gotten codeine or some mild opioid, those kids are turning out to be at increased risk of opioid addiction later on," he noted.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.