In this section, we will list common talking points of anti-opioid zealots. We want to give you the tools to discuss these common misleading statements.
The USA is 5% of the world's population, but we consume 80% of the world's prescription opioids and 99% or the world's hydrocodone (Vicodin)
This is a common statement that people use to show how much our country overprescribes opioids. You'll hear it in opioid litigation, series like Dopesick and Crime of the Century, and webinars from physicians from organizations like Fed-Up Rally, PROP, and Shatterproof. It's said for shock value. Here are some bullet points when responding to this statement:
- According to this article in Pain News Network, the actual number isn't quite that high, and also varies per opioid. For instance the U.S. consumed 57.3% of the world’s morphine in 2013 and 2015 the U.S. consumed 29.3% of the world’s supply of prescription fentanyl. He also says the number is more like 4.4% of the world's population and consumes 30% of the world's opioids.
- A more recent statistic was posted this week by Dr. Stefan Kertesz on Twitter. He said "The US accounted for 53% of world opioid consumption according to my review of the UN International Narcotics Control Board report of 2020. I converted to MME, from Tables XII/XIII Using raw weights, the US consumes 27%. 80% has never been true." The fact that they keep pushing this 80% and 5% false narrative is not only misrepresentation, but fraud. Why do they keep repeating this false statistic? Mostly for their litigation narrative. Billions of dollars are at stake in the thousands of lawsuits happening as we speak across the country. Litigation against pharmaceutical companies, distributers, and pharmacies. In our opinion, litigation has been their end game all along.
- Jeffrey Fudin addresses the statistic about Hydrocodone in this article called "The Hydrocode Question." He states "Many have said that the United States uses more hydrocodone than any other nation, but that is quite misleading. Most other countries do not report prescription opioid use, so to say that more opioids are prescribed by the United States than by the rest of the world is unsubstantiated. Prescribed indications are also a consideration. European countries use dihydrocodeine more commonly than they do codeine, hydrocodone, or morphine. In Canada, hydrocodone is generally used only in cough syrups or elixirs, not for pain treatment. In Australia hydrocodone has largely been replaced by morphine. Ignoring these factors skews the argument that the United States consumes the most hydrocodone worldwide and the claim that hydrocodone has been prescribed more than any other prescription drug in the United States. Unfortunately, many journalists have chosen to disregard these points in order to sell stories."
- Most of the world does not have access to pain care at all due to being undeveloped. So are we saying that it's a good thing that there isn't access to pain care or even health care, for that matter? About 80% of the world has little or no available treatment for moderate to severe pain. Look at this website about this topic called "The Pain Project." This article states "imagine recovering from major surgery or suffering from advanced cancer without any painkillers. That’s the reality for patients in half the countries in the world." In a study discussing cancer pain management around the world, they state "The WHO estimates that in 80% of the world population, there is insufficient access to appropriate opioid analgesics. Lack of proper pain medication prescription to the patient affects patients and the family and friends witnessing the patient's suffering." So, like Maia Szalavitz stated in a tweet from July, "the idea that the 'ideal' level of opioid prescribing is that which denies care to the vast majority of people dying in pain is absurd. Saying we consume 80% of world's opioids w/o mentioning that most of the world dies in pain is means we think dying in pain is good." Here is another study that also discusses this point. Dr. Amarquaye (@GhanaboyPharmd on Twitter) has posted some great threads about this topic. Here is one of them.
- Some opioids are over the counter (OTC) in other countries.
- Germany is the 2nd highest per capita prescribing country, and they don't have an "opioid crisis," which proves the point that our "over-prescribing" is not what's causing this overdose crisis in the USA.
80% of heroin users started with a prescription from their doctor
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.
- How People Obtain The Prescription Pain Relievers They Misuse by Rachel N. Lipari, Ph.D., and Arthur Hughes, M.S.
- The Myth of What's Driving The Opioid Crisis by Sally Satel
- Blaming Pharma Alone For The Opioid Crisis is Shortsighted by Brooke Feldman