While the nation’s ongoing opioid epidemic is often discussed as a white issue, new research indicates that prescription opioid use in black adults is just as high.
The powerful painkillers have a high potential for abuse — across the literature, rates of misuse average between 21 and 29 percent. Moreover, prescription opioids can pave the way for future use of illegal drugs like heroin. Eighty percent of people who have used heroin have previously misused prescription opioids.
Policies have been enacted across the nation to modify opioid prescription practices, but the effects of such policies are not fully understood. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan and Dartmouth sought to identify how pain medication prescription trends are changing over time across racial and ethnic groups.
The researchers looked at nationally representative survey data from 2000 to 2015. They estimated the percentage of adults who received a prescription for pain medication for reasons other than cancer pain for four racial groups — white, black, Hispanic or Latino, and other or multiple races/ethnicities. They broke these results down by pain medication type, including opioids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, COX-2 inhibitors and muscle relaxants.
- The greatest increase in prescription opioid use occurred in white adults. Over the 15 years studied, the scholars noted a 78 percent increase.
- Both black and white adults, however, had similar rates of prescription opioid use by 2015 — around 23 percent.
- Whereas white adults experienced increases in the percentage reporting poor or fair health, from 24 percent to 34 percent, the percentage of black adults reporting poor or fair health decreased from 52 percent to 41 percent.
- The researchers do not reconcile this “somewhat paradoxical” finding or explain why opioid prescriptions have increased among black adults.
- For all types of pain medications, across all racial groups studied, there were not large differences in the likelihood of receiving medication over the 15-year time period — about 30 to 35 percent of adults in the sample received something.
While the paper does not discuss the use of non-prescription opioids or overdose rates by race, new data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention add further nuance. The data show that overdose rates for all drugs have increased among black Americans since 2011. In particular, overdose rates for heroin, fentanyl, and other synthetic opioids have risen dramatically for black Americans.
Federal report: Prescription drug abuse, 2011