Blaming Rx Pills For Opioid Epidemic Is Fake News

Blaming Prescription Pain Pills For The Opioid Epidemic Is Fake News
How negligent media have helped inflate a deadly moral panic over prescription opioids and ignored the real sources of addiction while hurting people who live with devastating chronic pain.By Peter Pischke – March 26, 2019

Although opioid-related deaths are driven mainly by heroin and black-market fentanyl, you would not know that from most of the press coverage, which emphasizes pain medication prescribed to patients who become addicted, overdose, and die.

This narrative is “fake news.”

This is the fairytale the media has been pushing for years and years. Just by its incessant repetition, it has ingrained itself in our culture and remains stubbornly immune to facts. 

The Rise of Black Market Fentanyl

Just 30 percent of opioid-related deaths in 2017 involved commonly prescribed pain pills, andmost of those cases also involved other drugs.

People who die after taking these drugs typically did not become addicted in the course of medical treatment.

They tend to be polydrug users with histories of substance abuse and psychological problems.

Contrary to what you may have read or see on TV, addiction is rare among people who take opioids for pain.

Now if we could just persuade the rest of the media, pundits, and so-called “experts” of this fundamental truth.

In a 2018 study of about 569,000 patients who received opioids after surgery, for example, just 1 percent of their medical records included diagnostic codes related to “opioid misuse.”

According to federal survey data, “pain reliever use disorder” occurs in 2 percent of Americans who take prescription opioids each year, including non-medical users as well as bona fide patients.

I’m surprised that this low percentage includes our nemesis: the person without pain taking illicit opioids and overdosing on multiple drugs.

“The current battle against fentanyl as a street drug has little or nothing to do with American medical practice,” writes Harvard-trained anesthesiologist Richard Novak.

Why can’t the DEA and the government see this when it’s becoming so clear to so many professionals?

Most of the fentanyl found on the streets is not diverted from hospitals, but rather is sourced from China and Mexico.”

Yet, politicians, law enforcement agencies, anti-drug ad campaigns, movies, and TV shows still put pain treatment at the center of the “opioid crisis.”

While fentanyl is mentioned as a cause of the crisis, prescription analgesics gets much of the blame.

You can almost count on two hands the number of journalists in the country reporting on this issue responsibly. But this kind of thing—where someone pushes a specific narrative for a cause without regard to the full context and facts of a storyisn’t journalism, it’s activism.

Cracking Down in the Wrong Areas

Thirty-three states have now created laws that severely restrict opioid prescriptions in response to the hysteria. Most of these laws put hard day limits on prescribers

Due to the media hysteria which in turn inspires political hysteria, it is now harder than ever to get an opioid prescription for those in chronic pain, even though there is currently no equivalent medical treatment to replace the prescription opioids used by 18 million Americans for long-term pain.

The anti-opioid crusaders simply ignore this reality.

Instead of opioids, they believe we can substitute touchy-feely “alternative medicine” treatments, like music therapy or reiki, when medical professionals know exactly how much more effective opioids are.

In 2017, a New England Journal of Medicine study found, the number of doctors who prescribed opioids at all fell by 29 percent. That same journal in a more recent study found a decline of 54 percent in prescription opioids by doctors for first-time-opioid patients between 2012 and 2017.

So awful is the reaction against chronic pain patients that 300 drug policy, addiction, and pain treatment experts, including three former White House drug czars, recently urged the CDC to clarify its 2016 opioid prescription guidelines, which have been widely interpreted as imposing arbitrary limits on average daily doses.

Last November, the American Medical Association approved a resolution noting that guidelines had been read “by pharmacists, health insurers, pharmacy benefit managers, legislatures, and governmental and private regulatory bodies in ways that prevent or limit access to opioid analgesia.”

While the news media aren’t to blame for the backlash against doctors and their chronic pain patients, they are guilty of sustaining the moral panic underlying it—a panic that is causing many needless deaths.

Just go to any chronic pain patient forum, social media group, or even the federal government’s regulatory website to read the thousands of stories of quality-of-life reductions and suicide plans.

Desperation for Chronic Pain Patients?

Many of these patients used their prescriptions responsibly for decades, but they are now being pushed into trying dangerous surgical interventions or desperately buying drugs off the street

As someone who is disabled and suffering from intractable pain, I know this problem keenly. For more than a year, I have lived without a prescription of low-dose oxycodone I responsibly used for almost nine years.

While not a perfect treatment for my pain, oxycodone did allow me enough function to survive.

While on it, I

  • attended college,
  • served a mission,
  • obtained my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and
  • ran for school board twice.

Most people seem to think that opioids make everyone dull and sleepy, but this is not true. There are plenty of us, like Mr. Pischke, who function extremely well only because we are “on opioids” and our pain is controlled.  We are now losing this functionality due to overzealous opioid restrictions.

All that was taken away from me a year ago by a doctor who didn’t want to deal with the hassle that now comes with opioid prescriptions.

…too many of our leaders are … associating prescription opioids with fentanyl deaths is unethical and inaccurate.

And the deaths of innocent pain patients will be the price of it. Journalists must ask themselves: Does our misreporting have a cost?

Author: Peter Vaughn Pischke is a journalist and podcast host for He can usually be found manning the Happy Warrior Podcast: providing commentary on conservative and nerd-culture news and ideas. You can find him on Twitter: @happywarriorp.

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