As Prescription Opioid Regulations Tightened, Overdose Deaths Increased

By Kelly Burch 04/12/18

A study shows that heroin-related overdoses jumped more than 30% after the tightening of prescription opioid regulation in 2010.

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When it became clear that people were getting hooked on prescription drugs, policymakers tightened regulations around powerful opioids, cracking down on pill mills and unscrupulous doctors.

While this did slow the growth of overdoses due to prescription drugs, it may have caused an increased overdose rate for heroin, fentanyl and other street drugs. 

According to a study by the American Action Forum, opioid prescription rates have been decreasing since 2010, but opioid overdose rates have continued to increase, driven by the use of heroin and synthetic opioids. 

The study found that the rate of opioid prescriptions increased at an annual rate of 14.3% between 1999 and 2010. Then, amid tightening regulation, prescription rates fell 4.3% that year. The increase of fatal overdoses involving prescription opioids slowed, from increasing 13.4% annually prior to 2010 to increasing just 4.8% per year after 2010. 

At first glance it would seem the tightening of opioid regulations was working. However, opioid overdoses that did not involve prescription pills began increasing at the same time that prescription-related deaths declined.

Overdoses involving heroin increased 4.1% each year prior to 2010, but a shocking 31.2% annually after that year. Overdoses involving synthetic opioids also had a significant jump, increasing 13.7% annually before 2010 and 36.5% annually since then.

The increased use of street drugs meant that overall, opioid overdose rates continued to increase more sharply after prescription drug regulations were implemented.

Before 2010, the overdose rate increased by 9.1% annually, while after 2010 it increased by 12.3% each year. 

“While restrictions on prescription opioids appear to have slowed the growth in overdose fatalities involving those substances, the total number of opioid-involved overdose fatalities has accelerated due to staggering growth in overdose deaths involving heroin and synthetic opioids,” study authors Ben Gitis and Isabel Soto wrote, according to The Washington Post

Gitis said that the study shows that responses to the opioid epidemic really need to focus on addressing the root cause of the problem, rather than just working to stem the supply of drugs. 

“Really, the root cause is the dependency itself,” he said. Without addressing that, people who use opioids would likely move on to other drugs if the availability of opioids decreased. 

“Say policymakers were to start turning more attention to the supply of illicit opioids, heroin and synthetic opioids, which is obviously something that needs to happen,” Gitis said. “Doing that without addressing dependency could turn users to other types of drugs to use in their addiction.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.