Health and Science

Painkiller epidemic: Nearly half of Americans know an addict

Growing concerns over opioid addiction
Growing concerns over opioid addiction

Almost half of all Americans personally know someone who has been addicted to prescription painkillers — and most people feel the federal government isn't doing enough to stem a growing epidemic of opioid addiction, a new survey shows.

The survey released Tuesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation also found that a large majority of Americans believe that lack of access to care for people suffering from substance abuse is a problem in the United States.

The findings come as abuse of opioids — including prescription painkillers and the illegal drug heroin — has significantly increased in recent years.

In 2014, the most recent year data are available, almost 19,000 people died from overdoses of prescription painkillers, and more than 10,000 fatally OD'd on heroin. In other words, about 80 people died from opioid overdoses every day.

Concern about the epidemic earlier this year prompted the Obama administration to announce more than $1 billion in additional funding to combat opioid addiction.

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Kaiser's survey found that 44 percent of Americans said they personally know someone who has been addicted to prescription painkillers.

Of those people, 26 percent said the addict was an acquaintance, another 21 percent said it was a close friend and 20 percent said it was a family member, according to the survey, which questioned 1,201 adults.

A total of 2 percent said the addict was themselves.

A total of 58 percent of the overall public believe lack of access to treatment for substance abusers is a major problem in the country. People who know an addict were slightly more inclined to consider that a major problem: 61 percent of them said so.

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The Kaiser survey found that the public's view of the severity of opioid abuse depended on what kind of opioid was being asked about.

While prescription painkillers and heroin are both members of the opioid family, heroin was viewed as a more serious problem, despite the fact that far fewer people die from heroin overdoses annually than do from prescription painkillers.

Thirty-five percent of respondents see heroin abuse as an "extremely serious" problem, the survey found. That compares to 28 percent of people who saw abuse of strong prescription painkillers an an "extremely serious" problem.

Just 19 percent of respondents viewed alcohol abuse as an extremely serious problem. The tally of alcohol-related fatalities in 2014 reached nearly 88,000, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Kaiser survey found that the public is not satisfied what how much federal and state governments are doing to fight abuse of both legal and illegal opioids.

A total of 66 percent of Americans said the federal government isn't doing enough to combat painkiller abuse, and 62 percent said it isn't doing enough on the heroin-fighting front.

And 67 percent said states aren't doing enough to stem painkiller abuse. Another 61 percent said the same about state governments fight against heroin abuse.

The survey found most Americans believe police are already doing enough to fight the epidemic. Just 37 percent said cops should be doing more to fight painkiller abuse. And 36 percent said police should be doing more to fight heroin abuse.

There was widespread support among Americans for various strategies that they think would be effective at reducing painkiller abuse. Those included: increasing pain management training, increased access to treatment programs, public education and awareness programs, more research about pain and pain management, and monitoring doctors' prescription habits.

A majority of people, 59 percent, were in favor of limiting the availability of drugs that can prevent fatal opioid overdoses only to people who have a prescription for those life-saving drugs. A handful of states have allowed those opioid medications, Narcan and Naloxone, to be sold to people without a prescription.

But 45 percent of people surveyed who have a personal experience with painkiller abuse favor allowing nonprescription sale of those life-saving drugs. Only 30 percent of people without such experience favor such a liberalized policy for those medications.