Amid continuing efforts to address the opioid abuse epidemic nationwide, new data suggests that that the United States has seen its first decline in narcotic painkiller prescriptions in more than two decades.
According to a New York Times report, data compiled by two health information companies indicates that prescriptions for the powerful and addictive opioid painkillers declined between 12% and 18% over the past three years. This is the first drop in the U.S. since the widely abused drug OxyContin hit the market in 1996.
In recent years, there have been so many narcotic painkiller prescriptions in the United States, that there was enough for every American adult to have a bottle. However, the findings suggest that improvements are being made in the overdose and abuse epidemic sited by many health experts.
The data indicates opioid prescriptions have fallen in 49 states since 2013, with the sharpest decreases seen in West Virginia, which was the state considered to be the center of the opioid epidemic. South Dakota was the only state that showed an increase.
There was a 12% drop in narcotic painkiller prescriptions nationally since 2012, according to data from IMS Health. Symphony Health Solutions also reported a decline of opioid painkiller prescriptions of 18% during the past 3 years; 2013, 2014, and 2015.
The decrease in prescriptions seems to indicate doctors have begun to listen to the warnings about the addictive nature of the drugs and have used caution to prescribe them to patients.
Some argue the efforts to decrease prescribing have gone too far and are hurting patients who use them responsibly and need them for pain relief. The problem is many patients need the narcotic painkillers for true pain relief, but how to discern and manage the prescriptions responsibly and avoid causing addictions is difficult for doctors.
The review of the two data sources indicates the drop is an important early sign that the opioid epidemic may be easing. Yet, despite the decrease in prescriptions opioid fatal overdoses have increased, taking more than 28,000 lives in 2014.
Deaths from both illegal opioid use and prescription painkillers, such as Vicodin and OxyContin, have risen as access to prescription drugs has tightened.
When opioids were first formulated, prescribing was limited to treat terminal cancer pain or pain after surgery. Yet, drug companies, like Purdue Pharmaceuticals, argued the narcotic painkillers should be used to treat common chronic pain conditions, such as back pain, spurring the opioid epidemic in the U.S.
Critics say Purdue was aware OxyContin was not effective as a long-acting 12-hour drug before the narcotic painkiller was approved for the market, and the sealed documents scheduled for release next month prove this.
The industry boomed from $1 billion in 1992 to $10 billion by 2015. The most broadly prescribed are hydrocodone opioids, like Vicodin, now commonly given after minor dental procedures.
After the FDA tightened prescribing rules in 2013 for long-acting opioid combination drugs, prescriptions declined by 22 percent.
The warnings and programs implemented to help combat the opioid abuse epidemic seem to be helping drive prescriptions down, but the addiction that leads to abuse and overdose still remains rampant. More than 7 million Americans are believed to have abused OxyContin over the past 20 years.