More than half of all Americans say they or someone they know has abused prescription painkillers, according to a poll being released Tuesday that also found a significant share knew someone who died from opioid use.
In its monthly tracking poll, the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation says 56 percent of people report they know someone who took a painkiller that wasn’t prescribed to them, became addicted to the pills, or overdosed.
Sixteen percent say they knew someone who died from abusing the drugs — 9 percent described the person as a family member or close friend — although less than half of those polled could correctly point to drug overdoses as the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S.
Policymakers are grappling with widespread abuse of opioid painkillers, which affect the body in a way that is similar to heroin. The scourge has gripped wide swaths of the country, particularly in rural areas, and more whites — 63 percent — report knowing an abuser than did blacks (44 percent) or Hispanics (37 percent), according to Kaiser.
Young and middle-aged Americans are more likely to report a personal connection to painkiller abuse than those over age 65.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell has singled out painkiller abuse as a bipartisan issue that must be addressed, and Congress this month passed a bill to treat and prevent opioid abuse among pregnant women so that babies aren’t born with a drug dependency.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie injected the issue into the 2016 race for the GOP presidential nomination, saying it’s time to treat addicts as people who need help and not as ne’er-do-wells who somehow got what was coming to them.
“It can happen to anyone, and so we need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them,” he said during a recent campaign stop in New Hampshire.
And last week, the Food and Drug Administration approved an easy-to-use, nasal spray version of naloxone, a medication that reverses the effect of opioid overdoses.
States have taken a mixed approach to naloxone — some passed laws making it available without a prescription, while others placed restrictions on it because lawmakers feared it would encourage people to use illegal drugs.
Nearly two thirds of those polled — 62 percent — told Kaiser that people should hold a prescription before they get naloxone. Republicans were the most likely to feel that way, though majorities of Democrats and independents agreed.
However, nearly two-thirds of people (63 percent) said that “Good Samaritan” laws, which let people seek emergency help for themselves or others after a drug overdose without getting into legal trouble, were a good idea.
The discussion over what to do about painkiller abuse is unfolding alongside a debate about how to make prescription drugs more affordable and accessible to those who need them.
Yet when it comes to painkillers, 77 percent say it’s relatively easy for people without a prescription to access them, while only 58 percent say it’s easy for people who need the pills for medical purposes to get them.
“The perception among the public is that the balance is currently in the abuser’s favor,” the pollsters said.
Moving forward, exactly half of those polled said reducing the number of people abusing painkillers or heroin should be a top priority for their state lawmakers. That puts it lower on the wish list than improving education, retaining jobs or cutting crime, but on par with such issues as protecting the environment and improving infrastructure.