Study Suggests Dangers of Opioid Use Far Greater Than Reported

By McCarton Ackerman 09/09/15

A significant amount of patients stay on painkillers for months and may die as a result.

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Innocently taking opioid painkillers to address minor pains is more likely to lead down a slippery slope than initially thought. A new study out of Canada showed that over 10% of those prescribed opioid painkillers will stay on them for months and a large number will die from an overdose.

The findings published in the journal PLoS One, came from looking at patient health care records under Ontario’s public drug plan. Out of the 285,000 people under the plan prescribed an opioid drug, 11% stayed on them for at least three months. Among those chronic users, one in 45 men and one in 70 women were prescribed high dosages that greatly increased their risk of addiction and death. Tragically, one out of 350 men and one in 850 women died as a direct result of opioids.

“While one in 350 might not sound particularly high, remember that tens of millions of patients take these drugs and we’re talking about death,” said lead author Dr. David Juurlink, senior scientist at Toronto’s Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences. “From a public health perspective, this is a very big deal.”

These numbers are particularly eye-raising for Canadians, who are the world’s second-largest consumer of opioid painkillers. In Ontario alone, 10 people accidentally die from prescription overdoses every week. Meanwhile, overall opioid prescriptions soared to 21.7 million last year, a 25% jump from 2010.

In July 2014, Health Canada published proposed regulations that would require manufacturers to produce tamper-resistant versions of opioid painkillers in a bid to get users to stop crushing and snorting these pills. However, medical experts in the country said the proposal amounted to lip service and that the number of pills being prescribed was the issue, rather than their format.

“We will not stop abuse or influence the major consequences of abuse like mortality ... by introducing tamper-resistant formulations,” said Benedikt Fischer, an addictions expert at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University. “The single most important measure to reduce opioid misuse and harms is to reduce the overall amounts of opioids we are dispensing.”

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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.