Fueling an Epidemic: Americans Sharing Opioids with Friends and Family


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Prescription sharing is a key reason for the expansion of the opioid epidemic. Getty Images

It’s no secret that the opioid crisis is one of the most pressing modern public health crises hitting communities nationwide.

While addiction to prescription pain medications leads to tens of thousands of deaths a year, a new study looked at the role people sharing their prescriptions with others may play in feeding this drug epidemic.

A second annual study commissioned by Stericycle, a medical and hazardous waste disposal company, asked 1,200 Americans about their prescription medication disposal habits.

While 75 percent reported they believed sharing or selling unused prescriptions contributed to the nation’s addiction epidemic, 1 in 10 admitted they have offered or given their meds to family members and friends for medical and recreational use.

Just how big of an impact does this have on the opioid crisis?

Dr. Joseph Ladapo, an internist at UCLA Health, told Healthline that this is a common but underreported reality of how Americans have been mishandling their prescription drugs.

“This sharing of medications goes underreported because people may have concerns about their privacy or of their activities being disclosed and potentially exposing themselves to risk. I do think it’s pretty common,” Ladapo said, who wasn’t affiliated with the new study.

“I’ve spoken with patients who have engaged in that activity. I’ve heard people say they have offered [these medications] out of kindness. I don’t think this is a problem of ill intent. I think many people probably mean well when they engage in this activity,” he added.

However, Ladapo stresses that this particular problem underscores an urgent need for better outreach and intervention efforts to quell the continued growth of the opioid epidemic.

A major crisis

The opioid crisis has been an expanding problem in the United States. In 2015, drug overdoses resulted in 52,404 deaths overall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

If you zero in on that number further, more than 63.1 percent — or 33,091 deaths — involved opioids.

Just two years later, the number of opioid-related deaths climbed to 47,600, or 67.8 percent of all drug overdose deaths, the CDC reports.

Just how much does sharing prescriptions contribute to this concerning trend?

Ladapo says it’s hard to quantify. There’s no conclusive research out there that addresses that specific question, but he says it’s safe to say it does play a major role.

“We do know that something like 2 out of 3 people who abuse opioids obtain them at some point from a friend or a family member, so in the face of that high prevalence, it’s really hard to reach another conclusion other than that it is certainly not helping,” he said.

Like Ladapo, Josanne Pagel, MPAS, PA-C, MDiv, DFAAPA, executive director of physician assistant services at the Cleveland Clinic Health System, told Healthline she suspects the number of people who go past official — and safe — healthcare channels to share opioids with others is probably much higher than these statistics.