The Innocent Victims of America's Painkiller Panic

By Maia Szalavitz 01/25/12

A surge in abuse has lead to a nationwide crackdown on pain meds. But while only 1% of legitimate patients get hooked, many doctors treat ailing patients like criminals, while actual addicts get off scot-free.

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The press and pols have the public freaked about pain pills. photo via

Is addiction a fate worse than unremitting, agonizing pain? To many people, the answer is absolutely not—particularly if the sufferer is close to death. But that’s not how our policymakers—and even many people affected by addiction—seem to view the issue.

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 all patients 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.

The media love them some “innocent victims”—and the real story of not-so-blameless addicts who abuse prescription drugs is just not as compelling. This only contributes to the delusion that anyone who is treated for chronic pain with opioids is at risk for drowning in the—gasp!—riptide of addiction.

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.

Nonetheless, the media continue to love them some “innocent victims”—and the real story of not-so-blameless drug users who move from heavy drinking, cocaine use and marijuana smoking to prescription drug abuse is just not as compelling. This, sadly, only contributes to the delusion that anyone who is treated for chronic pain with opioids is at risk for drowning in the—gasp!—ubiquitous riptide of addiction.

The panic leads to policies that require pain patients to be urine-tested, to be called in to their doctors’ offices for random “pill counts” and to make frequent visits—all of which is not only humiliating but expensive and time-consuming. There’s little evidence that such policing prevents addiction or does anything else beyond inconveniencing and stigmatizing pain patients.

And indeed, the stigma of addiction is what’s behind the curtain here. Imagine suffering from incurable daily pain so severe that it feels like your legs are being dipped in molten iron or your spine is being scraped out by sharp talons. Even if you did, in a worst-case scenario, join the tiny percentage of patients who develop a new addiction and became obsessed with using opioids, would this really be worse, especially if you had safe and legal access to them?

Most of the physical and psychological horrors of addiction come with loss of control and with being unable to be present for family, work and friends. But pain can produce even greater dysfunction and emotional distance, and its ability to destroy relationships is at least as monstrous. Moreover, maintenance on opioids can typically stabilize people with addictions, without numbing or incapacitating them. So why do we panic?

In the absence of true pharmaceutical innovation (Zohydro and other "superdrugs" are mere purer versions of Vicodin without the acetaminophen ), opioids remain the only medications that can even begin to touch severe pain, though they are far from perfect. But since they rarely lead to addiction—and since addiction (or opioid maintenance treatment) may actually sometimes be the lesser of evils—does it really make sense to restrict and even deny their benefits to pain patients?

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Maia Szalavitz is an author and journalist working at the intersection of brain, culture and behavior.  She has reported for Time magazine online, and is the co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered, and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. You can find her on Linkedin and  Twitter.