WASHINGTON --More than half of Americans know someone who has abused prescription painkillers or died from an overdose, or has taken these medications themselves to get high, as the opioid epidemic continues to spread, according to a new poll.
Just 6 percent of those surveyed said they had abused painkillers, such as OxyContin, but 25 percent know a close friend or family member who has. Forty-five percent are acquainted with people who have used these medications without a prescription, and 39 percent know someone who became addicted, according to a Henry J. Kaiser Family foundation survey. Sixteen percent report knowing a person who died from an overdose of pain medication, and 9 percent said they'd lost a relative or good friend to an overdose. Together, that amounts to 56 percent of Americans touched by prescription painkiller addiction, the poll shows.
In sharp contrast to the crack cocaine and heroin addictions that plagued American cities in past decades and disproportionately affected racial and ethnic minorities, abuse of pain medicine today is more common among whites, people who live in suburbs and those from high-income households, the survey shows.
In addition to rampant abuse of opioid medicines intended for patients with extreme pain, use of heroin -- derived from opium -- has soared. Drug overdoses have surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of deaths from injury in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The demographics behind the crisis may explain why the political establishment is responding differently than it did to past drug addiction outbreaks. Relatively affluent, educated white voters in suburbs, small towns and rural areas have more influence with politicians. Presidential candidates campaigning in places like New Hampshire -- which has a significant drug addiction problem -- are sounding compassionate notes, not emphasizing criminal crackdowns on people who have substance use problems or blaming cultural decay.
Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have emphasized expanding access to treatment for people with substance use problems in their campaign platforms. On the Republican side, candidates have highlighted personal connections to the issue, including Carly Fiorina speaking of her step-daughter's death from drug use and Chris Christie telling voters of his daughter's struggles with addiction.
President Barack Obama staged a summit on the issue last month, and has implemented policies in recent months to address the epidemic, such as increasing access to prescription drugs like buprenorphine to treat addiction and emergency medicine like naloxone that can prevent overdose deaths. State and local authorities, especially in places like Kentucky and New England states hard hit by the epidemic, also are tackling the problem.
The public believes the government has a responsibility to stem the worsening painkiller addiction problem, but is divided, 36 percent to 39 percent, over whether the federal government or states should take the lead. The results roughly fall along partisan lines, with Republicans more likely to favor state action and Democrats to support federal interventions, the Kaiser Family Foundation poll found.
Republicans were less likely to believe naloxone, or Narcan, which can prevent overdose death if administered quickly, should be available without a prescription. Sixty-three percent of respondents approve of the "good Samaritan" laws -- designed to encourage drug users to seek medical help for other users without fear of arrest -- including majorities of Democrats and Republicans.
Asked what public policies would be effective in countering painkiller abuse, treatment for addicts was the most popular answer to the survey, with 85 percent supporting this approach. Tracking painkiller prescriptions and improving physician training on appropriate use of the medicines also ranked highly.
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