The origins of the opioid epidemic began in the early 1990s, with substantial growth in the number of prescription painkillers, such as Percocet, Vicodin, and Oxycontin, which were available to patients and dispensed by physicians. Irresponsible marketing by pharmaceutical companies, a rise in dispensed prescriptions, a lack of physician-patient communication concerning the dangers of opioids, and increased social acceptability of using such medications have all been blamed in part for the current epidemic. In 2017, it was found that 76 percent of U.S. adults blamed doctors overprescribing painkillers to patients for the opioid problem. Furthermore, a Statista survey from the same year found that 33 percent of respondents who had taken opioids in the past 24 months felt they were prescribed an unnecessary amount of opioids.
In 2015, prescription opioids accounted for approximately 22,598 deaths, a significant increase from 18,893 deaths just one year earlier. Opioid addiction is so widespread that one poll from 2017 found that 23 percent of respondents stated they personally knew someone who abuses opioids. Opioid addiction and abuse, and in particular prescription opioid abuse, affects all tiers of society and does not discriminate by age, race, income, or region. A recent Statista poll found that 26 percent of those aged 18 to 29 years had consumed opioids in the last two years, compared with 27 percent of those aged 30 to 44 years, and 22 percent of those aged 45 to 59 years.
The opioid epidemic has been assisted by an increase in the availability of cheap and easily accessible heroin. Heroin and prescription opioids share similar physiological effects and chemical properties, making heroin a practical substitute for prescription opioids when such medications are no longer available or easily obtained. The number of individuals who have consumed heroin has risen gradually since 2007, but have seen unusually large surges in recent years. In 2015, almost 13,000 people died of heroin overdose in the United States, nearly triple the number that died in 2011.
In an effort to ease the epidemic, some states have created drug monitoring programs and physicians now face more scrutiny in their willingness to prescribe opioids. Pharmaceutical companies have also worked to mitigate the addictiveness of such drugs and now attempt to properly inform physicians and patients alike on the dangers of opioids. However, with the increased availability of cheap heroin as a prescription opioid substitute and the rise of new opioids, such as fentanyl, the opioid epidemic will need the effort of all parties, i.e. government, law enforcement, users, patients, physicians, and pharmaceutical companies, if a timely and effective solution is to be found. In 2016, it was found that 66 and 62 percent of U.S. adults respectively felt the federal government was not doing enough to combat prescription painkiller addiction and heroin addiction. Furthermore, increasing pain management training, increasing access to treatment programs, and public education and awareness programs were listed as some of the most effective actions to reduce the abuse of prescription painkillers in the United States.