Nearly 30,000 deaths a year can be attributed to the abuse of heroin and prescription painkillers - opioids like oxycontin, vicodin, percocet, and methadone. But a new report indicates that opioid prescriptions in the last three years have declined. New York Times science correspondent Sabrina Tavernise joins Alison Stewart to discuss.
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ALISON STEWART, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:
In the United States, nearly 30,000 deaths a year can be attributed to the abuse of heroin and prescription painkillers. Opioids like OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet and Methadone. This epidemic in part was due to the surge in prescriptions being written over the last two decades.
However, a new analysis reveals that for each of the last three years, prescriptions are being written for opioids decline.
To discuss the implications of this, I'm joined from Washington, D.C., by Sabrina Tavernise of "The New York Times".
Sabrina, you've been reporting about this and writing about this for "The Times". What has contributed to this decline?
SABRINA TAVERNISE, THE NEW YORK TIMES:
First of all, I mean, it's surprising that they're even is a decline considering the fact that there had been so many, you know, it had been rising for so long for so many years. There are a number of factors that you're going into driving it. For one, there's been a big, big change in public consciousness about these drugs. People believe that they are dangerous drugs now. Doctors are sort of holding back from prescribing.
My colleague talked to a number of doctors that said that they, you know, didn't want to be the one who had — got a call from someone, a parent saying, you know, you were responsible for my child's addiction.
Are there any regional patterns here towards this decline or these databases that some states have helping out?
Something called the prescription drug database sort of tracking systems. Most states have those now. And in a number of states, doctors are required to check them to make sure that patients aren't also getting an opioid prescription from a different doctor. So, that has helped prescriptions down.
For many, many years actually, the pharmaceutical companies were arguing that the reason why that the epidemic was raging was because there were a few bad doctors going from state to state, kind of, you know, giving out prescriptions like they were candy. But essentially, you know, the prescriptions had risen so much.
I mean, it gotten up to sort of 250 million, 260 million prescriptions a year and that's enough for every American adult to have a bottle of opioid pills. There, basically, the experts came to the conclusion that this was a habit and culture that had formed in the medical society more broadly and not just one or two, you know, a couple of handful of people.
ALISON STEWART Sabrina, has the decline in prescriptions translated to a decline in deaths due to opioids?
So far, no. The deaths are still — have still been rising. The latest year we have is 2014 and that's about — a bit more than 28,000 opioid deaths, about 18,000 are prescription and 10,000 are heroin and other illegal drugs. And overprescribing have been very closely associated with the rise in deaths and the rise in overdoses.
And the hope is that the decline in prescribing is sort of a harbinger or a signal that the life cycle of this epidemic maybe on the down lope now.
ALISON STEWART Sabrina Tavernise from "The New York Times" — thanks so much.
Thank you very much.