Who Gets Addicted to Painkillers and Why

Though our post last week emphasized the lack of pain medication for several demographics in the U.S., today we turn to who is using those pain medications in excess. The opioid “epidemic” as it is now known by health professionals and government authorities, has reached all corners of the news and people across the country, but who does it affect? Nationwide, 90% of those who died from opioid overdoses in 2015 were white, with the majority existing in suburban communities.[1] Additionally, 21,671 men died of opioid overdose whereas only 11,420 women died of the same cause.[2] Why white men? This post will attempt to explain why.


How is this happening?

Dangerous overuse of painkillers is largely due to decades of aggressive ad campaigns and sponsored research by pharmaceutical companies that touted these medications as the end to discomfort.[3] Doctors, under the pressure of medical associations and advocacy groups, felt painkillers offered an easy way to treat patients quickly and efficiently.[4] The market was flooded with legal opioids and inundated with illegal ones once addicts realized they needed something stronger.[5] To understand more about these abundantly available drugs, read our overview post on the opioid epidemic.


Why this demographic?

As pointed out in an article from the Harvard Health Blog, “addiction was treated and viewed more as a crime than a disease, supposedly committed by scoundrels and misfits […many believed] respectable people did not associate with addicts.” The government, doctors, and self-medicating individuals didn’t easily recognize the symptoms of opioid addiction because utilizing painkillers doesn’t fit the stereotypically criminalized image of a drug addict.[6] Because we have come to associate addiction with dysfunctional people and those struggling economically, it can blind us to the fact that addiction can occur at all levels of the social ladder.[7] And, as can be seen in last week’s post, because there is more skepticism in treating pain in people of color and women, it makes sense that the vast majority of those suffering from painkiller addiction are those that are most frequently prescribed them: white men.


What do medical professionals need to keep in mind?

Doctors need to be aware of their own assumptions about addiction; they should always be cautious when prescribing opioids and other painkillers. It is critical to remember that everyone, regardless of race, gender, or economic status, is capable of developing a drug addiction. Additionally, always asking patients about previous drug and alcohol use can help determine the risk in prescribing painkillers.[8]

The current high levels of opioid addiction in the U.S. also speaks to a large problem within the medical community as well as society as a whole: addiction should always be framed as a disease. The opioid addiction has been treated as an “epidemic,” a public health crisis, while the “war on drugs” has raged against users of drugs more commonly associated with poor, inner city individuals.[9] Remember that while there is all sorts of funding and programs stressing rehabilitation over incarceration for opioid users, the same cannot be said for users of other drugs, who deserve to have their addiction treated with humanity and empathy as well.[10]

One Princeton study suggests that 20% of the reduction in male participation in the American workforce is due to opioid use, and that almost one-third of working-age men not in the labor force are taking prescription painkillers daily.[11] Clearly, this is a huge problem that must be addressed with all seriousness. However, it is critical that we do not care for one demographic at the expense of another; [12] recognizing the wide-reaching effects of all drug addiction can serve to better medical practice and society as a whole.



[1] McKenzie, Kevin, “Largely white opioid epidemic highlights black frustration with drug war,” USA Today, March 26, 2017, https://www.commercialappeal.com/story/money/2017/03/26/white-opioid-epidemic-highlights-black-frustration-drug-war/97694296/

[2] “Opioid Overdose Deaths by Gender,” Kaiser Family Foundation, 2017, https://www.kff.org/other/state-indicator/opioid-overdose-deaths-by-gender/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Location%22,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D

[3] Moghe, Sonia, “Opioid history: From ‘wonder drug’ to abuse epidemic,” CNN, Oct. 14, 2016, http://edition.cnn.com/2016/05/12/health/opioid-addiction-history/

[4] Lopez, German, “The opioid epidemic, explained,” Vox, Dec. 21, 2017, https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/8/3/16079772/opioid-epidemic-drug-overdoses

[5] Ibid

[6] Kiesel, Laura, “Addiction, the opioid crisis, and family pain,” Harvard Health Blog, Nov. 2, 2017, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/addiction-the-opioid-crisis-and-family-pain-2017110212664

[7] Winnefeld, James, “No Family Is Safe From This Epidemic,” The Atlantic, Nov. 29, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/11/an-epidemic-from-which-no-one-is-safe/546773/

[8] Ibid

[9] McKenzie, “Largely white opioid epidemic”

[10] Kiesel, “Addiction, the opioid crisis, and family pain”

[11] Winnefeld, “No Family Is Safe”

[12] Ibid