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Hope in the drug crisis: New data shows prescription opioid use fell at a historic rate last year

Key Points
  • Use of prescription opioids fell at a record rate last year, according to a new report.
  • Prescription opioid use in the U.S. was down 17% in 2018, marking the largest annual decline ever recorded, research firm IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science says.
Lawrence K. Ho | Getty Images

Use of prescription opioids such as OxyContin or Vicodin fell at a record rate last year as the U.S. government cracks down on pharmacists and drugmakers that dispense the sometimes lethal painkillers, according to a report published Thursday.

Prescription opioid use in the U.S. was down 17% in 2018, marking the largest annual decline ever recorded, research firm IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science said. In 1992, prescription opioid use was at roughly 22 pain pills per U.S. adult per year and rose to a peak level of 72 pills per U.S. adult in 2011, IQVIA said. Since 2011, use has declined by 43% to 34 pills per adult.

The new data, unveiled in IQVIA's 2019 report on health-care trends, provides some hope for combating the nationwide opioid epidemic, which kills roughly 130 Americans every day. Just last month, a new study provided troubling news that the opioid crisis has led to a sharp increase in the death rate for overdoses by teens and young adults.

The Justice Department and U.S. lawmakers have been working to combat the epidemic, such as limiting painkiller prescriptions and punishing those seen as responsible for the epidemic.

On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., unveiled a $100 billion proposal that would fund prevention services and provide resources to programs for those battling addiction and in recovery.

Last month, a former CEO of Rochester Drug Cooperative, one of the nation's largest drug distributors, was indicted on what prosecutors say are the first criminal charges against an executive of a drug company to stem from the opioid epidemic. In addition, the federal government reached a $20 million settlement with the company over its alleged role in the crisis.

Separately, federal prosecutors charged 60 doctors, pharmacists and other licensed medical professionals across five states in connection with illegally prescribing more than 32 million pain pills.

The indictments came as some 1,600 cases against OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma and other opioid manufacturers are being consolidated and transferred before a judge in the Northern District of Ohio, and New York and other states begin their own massive legal fights.

The report Thursday showed prescriptions for lower-dose opioids remained stable, possibly because such painkillers are still perceived by physicians and patients as relatively safe, IQVIA said.

—CNBC's Meg Tirrell contributed to this report.

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