Addiction to opioid painkillers has killed nearly 200,000 Americans and has devastated far more lives than that. How could this have happened?
A study has traced the problem to a five sentence, 101 word letter to the editor in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1980. The letter described a study of 12,000 hospital patients who were given narcotic painkillers. It said that there were only four cases of addiction. It concluded that there was therefore little danger in prescribing opioid painkillers.
That letter was cited and referred to in study after study. It led doctors to prescribe that medication on a massive scale.
Unfortunately, the letter was mistaken, as a story explains after the jump. But it led directly to the scourge that we are struggling with today.
From Karen Kaplan, How a 5-sentence letter helped fuel the opioid addiction crisis – LA Times:
Close to 200,000 Americans have died by overdosing on prescription painkillers, and a new report traces some of the blame to five simple sentences written nearly 40 years ago.
The sentences, containing just 101 words, appeared in a 1980 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. They formed a letter to the editor that described a rudimentary analysis of 11,822 hospital patients who took a narcotic painkiller at least once. The vast majority of those patients tolerated the drugs without incident, according to Jane Porter and Dr. Hershel Jick of the Boston Collaborative Drug Surveillance Program.
“There were only four cases of reasonably well documented addiction in patients who had no history of addiction,” Porter and Jick reported. “The addiction was considered major in only one instance.”
In their view, the takeaway was clear: “We conclude that despite widespread use of narcotic drugs in hospitals, the development of addiction is rare in medical patients with no history of addiction.”
That conclusion turned out to be wrong.
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