Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Does Restricting Opioids Lead to More Heroin Overdose Deaths?

Turns out Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), a condition suffered by newborn babies of opioid-addicted mothers, isn't the only risk to children in the fight against opioid misuse and abuse.  A JAMA Pediatrics article published yesterday showed a more than 2-fold increase in hospitalizations among children due to opioid poisonings.  While the bulk of these hospitalizations were predictably among older adolescents, the fastest growing cohort of hospitalizations occurred among the youngest children (toddlers and pre-schoolers) who can't tell the difference between candy and OxyContin.  A follow-on piece in the Washington Post fairly equates this public health risk to the gun control debate. Lock up the guns, lock up the drugs - our kids are paying too high a price.  

In other news, this month's Health Affairs contains a really interesting article on the relationship between state laws and opioid / heroin overdose deaths (Health Affairs 35, No. 10 (2016); 1876-1883).  Here are the high level conclusions:

  • States that pass laws pertaining to mandatory physician review of PDMP data and the strict licensing of pain clinics reduced opioid amounts prescribed by 8% and opioid overdose death rates by 12%.  
  • The study also observed a large (though statistically insignificant) reduction in heroin overdose death rates.  This might be counter-intuitive to you because some believe cutting off the supply of opioids in a community creates risk of increased heroin use.  
The public policy conclusions here are important.  First, if passing these common-sense laws really does lead to decreases in opioid supply and overdose deaths, there isn't any good reason not to implement mandatory PDMP checks and strict pain clinic laws (unless you live in Missouri... in which case irrational concerns over privacy consistently inhibit adoption of sound public health policy). 

Second, the study found "no evidence to support the assertion that policies to curb opioid prescribing are leading to heroin overdoses."  This doesn't mean that heroin overdoses haven't been on the rise; in fact, they've been increasing in virtually every state in the country.  What the study authors are saying is that new opioid restrictions do not appear to be accelerating the rise in heroin overdose deaths.  

Opioid and heroin abuse is clearly a complicated public health problem.  But this data suggests we should avoid the policy trap of using the one (potential heroin overdose deaths) as an excuse to not do the other (restrict the opioid supply through mandatory PDMP checks and strict pain clinic licensing). If there is data out there to the contrary, I'd honestly love to see it.  I think it's important to litigate these studies to ensure we're moving in the right direction.
As the devil can cite scripture for his purpose, we all seem able to find anecdotes to support our policy views.  Stories can be powerful illustrators of truth, but let's make sure we use data to guide our public policy discussions. 

On Twitter @PRIUM1

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