LIE: "80% of heroin users started with a prescription from their provider"

This lie or false narrative is repeated so often, it seems like it’s everywhere. We’ve seen it used by the DEA, in opioid litigation, as well as in every single presentation given by anti-opioid zealots such as Andrew Kolodny, Anna Lembke, Roger Chou, etc. It's also repeated often on social media by people who don't know any better and just repeat what they've heard "experts" say. Remember, they need to make it sound like all addiction and overdose deaths are the fault of pharma, distributers, doctors, and pharmacies. It is necessary for the billions of dollars they are trying to get in litigation settlement. They want people to believe that the vast majority of all with opioid use disorder (OUD) started from a prescription from their doctor, and that the majority of those who misuse or even just use prescription opioids end up using heroin.

A perfect example of this is this video clip from last year's Johnson and Johnson trial. Look how they phrased it.

First, let's look at where this statistic comes from. In this article in Pain News Network Roger Chriss discusses the origin of this statistic: "The DEA cites the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) as its source, while NIDAs in turn references a 2013 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA)." I'm going to give bullet points and include sources of the information so you can confidently respond to this false narrative.

  • When this statistic is repeated, it’s often implied or even sometimes stated that 80% of those starting heroin were given prescriptions from their doctors. The problem with this is that’s not at all what the source is stating. In the SAMHSA study, they took data from a ten-year period from the National Survey on Drug use and Health and found that around 80% of those who started heroin previously used nonmedical use of prescription opioids. I'm going to repeat the second part of that statement. Those using heroin previously used NONMEDICAL USE of prescription opioids. So, these weren't people who got a prescription from their doctor, took the medication as prescribed, and then turned to heroin. Again, what it actually states is that 4 out of 5 heroin initiates first started with nonmedical use of prescription opioids. That’s a huge difference from what they claim when stating this "statistic."  An excellent source on this topic is an article called "Today's nonmedical opioid users are not yesterday's patients..."  This article states that "The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) has repeatedly found that less than 25% of nonmedical prescription opioid users obtain these drugs from a prescriber." This means that at least 75% or more of heroin users who started by misusing prescription opioids obtained these pills illicitly. This directly contradicts their lie.
  • This lie implies that the statistic is uniform throughout the USA. This is false. The statistic is not consistent in every area of the country. In the article in Pain News Network, Roger Chriss states "The abuse of opioid medication by heroin users also varies considerably by time, region, and demographics...prior nonmedical use of opioid medication was found in 50% of young adult heroin users in Ohio, in 86% of heroin users in Los Angeles, and in 40%, 39%, and 70% of heroin users in San Diego, Seattle, and New York respectively." So making a blanket statement implying consistency throughout the USA is wrong.
  • One thing this statistic makes people believe is that most people who misuse prescription opioids turn to heroin eventually. In reality, it's only a very small amount. According to this article by National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), less than 4% of those who abuse prescription opioids end up using heroin within 5 years. That is a fact you'll never hear anti-opioid zealots discuss.  For the sake of their litigation narrative, they need people to think the vast majority of everyone who not only abuses but even uses prescription opioids will most likely develop an addiction to it and turn to heroin.
  • When they repeat this lie, they love to imply or even state that the vast majority of heroin users of today were pain patients at first. That's blatantly false. In fact, if this were true, then when prescribing doubled in the USA form 2002-2014, heroin use would have likewise increased. Yet, it didn't. As stated in this article I mentioned earlier, “Doubling the amount of opioids prescribed does not seem to have had a discernible effect on the rate of nonmedical use or the rate of pain reliever use disorder.” Blaming OxyContin for the increased drug deaths is misguided. The truth is drug deaths have been increasing since 1979, well before OxyContin ever hit the market. But, yet again, they desperately need to keep people believing that the huge spike in overdose deaths is due to Purdue/OxyContin.
  • One last point is that the 80% statistic, even if properly used and applied, isn't even accurate anymore.  As shown by Dr. Bob Twillman in this tweet, 32% of people with OUD actually started with heroin. So the statistic isn't accurate anymore that 80% of those who use heroin started with misusing prescription opioids. This statistic can be found in this article.

I'll list some links to some more articles and studies that discuss this topic in case you'd like to read more about it.

  1. How People Obtain The Prescription Pain Relievers They Misuse by Rachel N. Lipari, Ph.D., and Arthur Hughes, M.S.
  2. The Myth of What's Driving The Opioid Crisis by Sally Satel
  3. Blaming Pharma Alone For The Opioid Crisis is Shortsighted by Brooke Feldman

This content was written by Bev Schechtman and Carrie Judy for The Doctor Patient Forum. Updated January 10, 2022.

The Doctor Patient Forum

Claudia A. Merandi 5 Chedell Ave, E Providence, RI 029141.401.523.0426