The latest Kaiser Health Tracking Poll has generated significant media attention, further inflating the narrative about opioid abuse and death. If all you see are the numbers that hit the press, you’d be misinformed.
The headlines paint a clear picture of the story-line:
“Prescription drug abuse plagues U.S., stymies policymakers” (Washington Times)
“Painkiller Abuse Hits Close To Home For A Majority Of Americans” (Huffington Post)
“One in Four Americans Has Been Addicted to Painkillers or Is Close to an Addict” (Bloomberg)
“Half of Americans Know Someone Addicted To Painkillers” (Mirror Daily)
Here are the data points from the Kaiser Poll that fueled the headlines:
- 6% of those surveyed said they had abused painkillers
- 25% know a close friend or family member who has abused painkillers
- 45% are acquainted with people who have used these medications without a prescription
- 39% know someone who became addicted
- 16% report knowing a person who died from an overdose of pain medication
- 9% said they’d lost a relative or good friend to an overdose.
- 56% of Americans touched by prescription painkiller addiction.
Mark Twain famously said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
I’m no statistician, so I can’t question the validity of the findings, but I do know headlines, and a powerful narrative that government, media and public policy groups are advancing at great speed.
Sixteen percent of Americans “know a person who died from an overdose of pain medication.” That’s a big number. Can it be true?
I’m sure it’s true. I know someone. Do you?”
But what is raised is the bigger issue of public perception. Is the whole opioid debate being warped by folks with an agenda?
One of the National Pain Report’s important contributors thinks so.
“We have a responsibility to work very hard to protecting others from our beliefs – and because every person has unique needs, we just don’t have the right to further our personal agendas at the expense of persons who can be easily harmed by our pronouncements – and they are being harmed, make no mistake about it,” said Terri Lewis, Ph.D., an expert on Rehabilitation Medicine and contributor to National Pain Report who has been very critical of the Center for Disease Control Guidelines on opioid prescription.
“Building a survey to confirm the story you want to tell is so easy,” Dr. Lewis continued. “Most people will respond based on what they’ve heard circulating in the media, not according to their personal experience. A surveyor can make a ham sandwich tell any story they want.
And, here’s Kaiser’s “ham sandwich:”.
The Poll asked respondents, “To the best of your knowledge, which of the following is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States? Falls, drug overdose, or car accidents?”
(Notice the question asks about “drug overdose” and not “died from an overdose of pain medication,” which is one of their major headlines.)
The Kaiser Tracking Poll states definitely that “Drug overdose ranks as the leading cause of accidental deaths in the U.S. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, yet 4 in 10 (40 percent) Americans are aware of this fact. A larger share instead names car accidents as the main culprit (50 percent), 6 percent say falls, and the rest are unsure or volunteer another cause.”
What are they trying to say? I’ll let you answer that.
Do the numbers they cite really work, or are they “statistics?”
Kaiser tells you, the reader, that the CDC says “drug overdose” is the leading cause of accidental death. That’s got to be true, right? It is, in a Twain-like way. The Kaiser citation shows that the CDC states there were 43,982 drug overdose deaths (all drugs) and 16,235 related to opioid painkillers in 2013. The CDC also cites that there were 33,804 motor vehicle deaths in 2013.
“The entire discussion is patently misrepresented when ‘prescription drug overdoses’ are lumped together with non-opioids, heroin, and opiates prescribed and taken as prescribed,” Dr. Lewis said. “And of the 16,235, a portion of those are opiates taken as prescribed by compliant patients – and death may have well been the result of factors beyond the prescribing, including underlying illness.”
With the headlines focused on abuse and death related to prescription painkillers, it’s deceiving that Kaiser chose a figure that relates to all drug overdoses. Why? Perhaps it is because 16,235 is about half as small a number as 33,804. It seems that the headline, “Death Due to Prescription Pain Medicine Is Only Half That of Motor Vehicle Accidents!!!” wouldn’t do much for reinforcing the message.
The number of deaths and overdose due to illegal, misuse of prescription pain medication IS alarming. It IS worthy of great attention. But, what’s happening is similar to what we see with other national issues – it’s the positioning of everything being either good or evil while throwing the law-abiding sufferers under the bus. Sadly the bad guy in this story is the person who takes pain medication legally, responsibly and with great need.
What did they ever do wrong? Nothing.
But, now they don’t just fight their pain, they are fighting the effects of a propaganda war waged against them by the government (CDC, DEA, Administration, HHS, FDA…) and policy groups (Kaiser, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Clinton Foundation), with air bombardment from the media.
National Pain Report would like your opinion on the issue.
Doug Lynch is a former chronic pain patient who worked in the pain industry for ten years. He is a partner in the National Pain Report.