Nonmedical Opioid Rx Use: US Trends

Nonmedical prescription opioid use decreased, but overdose deaths increased in recent years

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Jennifer Gershman, PharmD, CPh

(RxWiki News) When it comes to recent trends of nonmedical prescription opioid use in the US, there's good news and bad news.

A new study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that, from 2003 to 2013, nonmedical use of prescription opioids decreased among US adults ages 18 to 64. During that same time period, however, opioid use disorders, high-frequency use and overdose-related deaths increased.

According to researchers, these findings stress the importance of developing a coordinated effort to address the recent "opioid epidemic."

"Today’s article highlights the fact that although there has been some success in lowering the percentage of nonmedical use of prescription opioids, the consequences continue to ravage many lives," said Acting SAMHSA Administrator Kana Enomoto, in a press release. "We must continue to raise awareness about the danger on nonmedical use of prescription opioids, and help people with prescription opioid use disorders get treatment."

Opioids are drugs that relieve pain. Drugs that fall within this class include hydrocodone (brand name Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), morphine (Kadian, Avinza) and codeine, among others.

Because these drugs affect the brain regions involved in reward, some people experience a euphoric response to opioids. Taken as prescribed, opioids can be used to manage pain safely and effectively. When abused, however, they can lead to physical dependence, addiction and even death.

For this study, a team of researchers led by Beth Han, MD, PhD, MPH, used data from SAMHSA’s 2003 to 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health to look at prescription opioid use among 472,200 patients ages 18 to 64. These researchers also used US mortality data from the 2003 to 2013 National Vital Statistics System’s Multiple Cause of Death Files.

Dr. Han, a statistician at SAMHSA's Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, and team found that nonmedical use of prescription opioids decreased from 5.4 percent in 2003 to 4.9 percent in 2013.

However, the prevalence of prescription opioid use disorders (physical dependence or abuse) increased from 0.6 percent in 2003 to 0.9 percent in 2013. The prevalence of high-frequency use (200 days or more) also increased from 0.3 percent in 2003 to 0.4 percent in 2013.

Similarly, the average number of days of nonmedical use of prescription opioids also increased from 2.1 days in 2003 to 2.6 days in 2013. And prescription opioid overdose deaths increased from 4.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2003 to 7.8 per 100,000 people in 2013.

According to Dr. Han and team, prescription opioids were involved in more US deaths (16, 200) than all illegal drugs combined (14,775) in 2013.

This study was published Oct. 13 in the journal JAMA.

SAMHSA, NIDA and the FDA funded this research. No conflicts of interest were disclosed.

Review Date: 
October 16, 2015
Last Updated:
October 20, 2015