Stigma Hinders Response To Opioid Epidemic, Study Says

By Keri Blakinger 06/11/18

A new study examined how Americans feel about needle exchanges and safe injection facilities. 

fingers pointing at a sad young man

Stigma around addiction is beating back public support for well-studied harm reduction interventions like needle exchanges and safe injection facilities (SIFs), according to a new study published in Preventive Medicine

An online survey of more than 1,000 adults found that just 39% of Americans support the idea of needle exchanges and only 29% support safe injection sites.

The study also looked at how much respondents bought into social stigma around addiction and opioid use, as measured by their willingness to let an opioid user marry into the family or work with them on the job. 

“These results suggest that we need to reduce stigma toward people who use opioids and do a better job educating the public about why these strategies work,” said the study’s lead author, Emma E. McGinty.

Overall, survey respondents reported high levels of stigma in relation to drug addiction. Only 16% of poll-takers were willing to let a person struggling with opioid use marry into their family. Just 28% were okay with having an opioid-addicted co-worker and only 27% of those surveyed rated opioid as deserving people—as opposed to worthless.

“Stigmatizing attitudes were associated with lower support for legalizing safe consumption sites and syringe services programs,” the Johns Hopkins team wrote, according to Vox

Researchers also found a breakdown along party lines, with Democrats and Independents more likely to support safe injection sites and needle exchanges. And the unemployed and respondents with bachelors’ degrees were a little more likely to approve of harm reduction interventions. Attitudes didn’t differ much by race or age, researchers found.

“The biggest take-home message from these sub-group analyses is that there are not many differences in attitudes across demographic categories, with the exception of political party identification,” McGinty said. 

The study is the first to poll a large, nationwide group of Americans about needle exchanges and SIFs, both of which have been studied and found to reduce overdoses and the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C.

“Stigmatizing attitudes toward people who use opioids are a key modifiable barrier to garnering the public support needed to fully implement evidence-based harm reduction strategies to combat the opioid epidemic,” the researchers wrote. “Dissemination and evaluation of stigma reduction campaigns are a public health priority.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.