More Americans Use Prescription Painkillers Than Tobacco

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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Use of prescription painkillers is now more widespread in the U.S. than using tobacco, a stark representation of the opioid epidemic plaguing states across the country.

Dependence on opioids continues to skyrocket in the U.S. and is particularly bad in states like Tennessee, where there are more painkiller prescriptions written than people actually living in the state. There are 1.18 opioid prescriptions per every resident of Tennessee. More people died from overdoses in the state in 2014 than from car crashes or shootings, reports The Tennessean.

Nationally, 37.8 percent of adult Americans are using some kind of painkiller, while 31.1 percent of adults in the U.S. use tobacco products.

“You’d like to think that is good news and reflects a reduction of tobacco use, but unfortunately that’s not the case,” Danny Winder, director of the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research, told The Tennessean. “It’s a particularly pernicious problem because of its prevalence … Anytime you have a substance that is legally available and has addictive properties, that’s setting up the problem.”

Many people who overdose on substances like heroin began with a dependence on prescription painkillers, but switched after building high tolerances that made them too expensive. Activists for opioid addiction treatment are highly critical of the federal government for not doing more to curb the harms of prescription painkillers. In 2015, roughly 40 percent of unemployed people in the U.S. used a prescription opioid.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has an immense regulatory framework for informing the public on the dangers of tobacco. Many states voted to raise their tobacco tax to further reduce smoking on election day, some even moving against electronic cigarettes. Proponents of the tax in California argued e-cigarettes are “extending and expanding the tobacco epidemic.”

The FDA finalized a rule in May forcing all vape products to be regulated the same way as cigarettes, and many local vape vendors are anticipating closure within the next two years. Many doctors question the priorities of the FDA for focusing on vaping regulations while not doing enough to combat the opioid epidemic.

“We require tobacco companies to put warning labels on tobacco products; you don’t really see that in opioid products,” Dr. Richard Soper, chief at the Center for Behavioral Wellness, told The Tennessean. “As long as the FDA is continuing to approve opioids, there still will be access to it. There will still be doctors writing prescriptions.”

Of all the prescriptions issued for painkillers only a portion develop an addiction. It is estimated that roughly 2.2. million Americans are currently battling opioid addition. Medical professionals still fear that number will rise if painkillers remain so widely available.

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