Have National Opioid Addiction Rates Hit A Plateau?

The number of national diagnoses of opioid use disorder declined from 2016 to 2017, from 6.2 per 1,000 patients to 5.9.

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Fewer people are being given highly addictive painkillers.

The number of national diagnoses of opioid use disorder declined from 2016 to 2017, from 6.2 per 1,000 patients to 5.9, according to a new survey by Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA). This is the first decline BCBSA had measured in eight years, since it started tracking opioid use disorder diagnoses. However, that doesn’t mean that the drug epidemic is in decline, even though this is a positive sign for people in recovery.

The Blue Cross data shows an important trend in opioid prescriptions: prescribers are following guidelines and, as a result, fewer people are being given highly addictive painkillers. Opioid prescriptions dropped by nearly 30 percent from 2013 to 2017. Two-thirds of opioid prescriptions filled in 2017 were within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended guidelines.

”It means that there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University, told Vox. “The decrease in new cases of opioid addiction is likely due to the trend in more cautious prescribing and greater public awareness of opioid risks.”

However, this doesn’t mean that the drug crisis is winding down, or even decreasing. Addiction is an illness with no upper limit. Although the data may show more responsible trends in prescribing behavior, that doesn’t correlate with rising death rates in 2016. According to Vox, “overdose deaths reached new highs in 2016, when more than 60,000 people died of drug overdoses, most of them from opioids.” Addiction rates are not slowing down, and the presence of fentanyl in heroin and other substances like cocaine and methamphetamine dramatically increase the likelihood of a fatal overdose.

Furthermore, the study offered no data about recovery rates, the prevalence of naloxone in American homes and public places, and whether patients with chronic pain were receiving adequate care. Although the BCBSA data is encouraging, addiction in America is not a simple problem. Vox pointed out, “We do seem to be getting better at preventing overprescribing, and addiction rates do seem to be stagnating. Nevertheless, we need to do a lot more if we are to stop setting new records every year for overdose deaths.”

Maureen Boyle, a former researcher at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told Vox, “One concern is that this will make all of the public health efforts of the last few years seem like they have failed, when in actuality they have shown success, and have likely slowed the increase in overdose deaths. But controlling the supply of synthetics is probably impossible — given the incredibly small volumes that need to get across the border. I just hope policymakers don’t get disheartened by the raw numbers.”

Any progress in turning back the drug epidemic is a win. This complex issue can only be solved by a multi-pronged, long-term plan with significant funding and federal support. As policymakers catch up to grassroots advocacy efforts, it’s important to celebrate our progress while we continue to work for change.

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