More Americans Use Painkillers Than Tobacco, Study Finds

By McCarton Ackerman 09/23/16

Americans consume 99% of the global supply of hydrocodone and 80% of the global opioid supply.

More Americans Use Painkillers Than Tobacco, Study Finds

A new report highlights just how prevalent prescription painkiller use has become in the United States—today, more Americans use these drugs than tobacco products.

The findings came from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The report shows that 38% of Americans used prescription painkillers in 2015, while 31% used cigarettes, cigars or smokeless tobacco.

Those numbers are especially noteworthy because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more people died from prescription painkillers than homicide in 2014.

CDC data has also found that opioid overdose deaths climbed from about 5,500 in 2002 to just over 12,000 in 2014.

The widespread use of prescription painkillers in the U.S. is no longer a secret. A 2008 study, published in the Pain Physician Journal, showed that Americans consume 99% of the global supply of hydrocodone and 80% of the global opioid supply.

The new SAMSHA report did not indicate what percentage of people misused prescription painkillers. SAMHSA’s definition of misuse includes any use of painkillers in a manner not as directed by a doctor—which can range from taking these substances at higher doses or longer periods of time than recommended, to using them for the sole purpose of getting high.

It’s also unclear whether the current numbers are an increase or decrease over previous years, because questions regarding prescription drug use were only recently added to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the Washington Post's Christopher Ingraham noted.

Pharmaceutical companies have been shown to play a direct role in this widespread use. A joint investigation released this month by the Center for Public Integrity and the Associated Press revealed that pro-painkiller groups outspend groups pushing for painkiller restrictions by 200 to 1.

Some of these companies have even engaged in illegal behavior to promote sales of the drugs. Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, pleaded guilty in 2007 to misleading doctors and regulators about the drug's high potential for abuse.

Earlier this year, the CDC released new guidelines regarding painkillers in response to excessive dispensing of them. Its data showed that doctors wrote 82.5 opioid prescriptions per 100 people in 2012, enough for every American adult to have their own bottle.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.