Florida pill mill crackdown curbed opioid drug deaths

The decrease in access to opioid-based prescription drugs may also have led to a decrease in heroin deaths, researchers said.
By Stephen Feller  |  Dec. 21, 2015 at 5:23 PM
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BALTIMORE, Dec. 21 (UPI) -- In response to a massive problem with overprescription of opioid-based prescription drugs in the early 2000s, the state of Florida outlawed businesses called "pill mills," which made it easy for people to get them. A new study suggests the law prevented deaths from opioid drug abuse, researchers at Johns Hopkins University reported.

The researchers also said fewer deaths from heroin may also be a result of the change in law in 2010 and 2011, contradicting theories that making the prescriptions more difficult to get would increase use of the illicit drug.

One recent study showed have shown "alarming" increases in heroin use in the United States, and another study showed most high school heroin users started by abusing prescription opioid painkillers.

"This study underscores that the sharp rise in prescription opioid overdose deaths has become a public health epidemic that is driven, in part, by major criminal enterprises," said Dr. Daniel Webster, a professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a press release. "Our new study demonstrates that the right laws and strategic enforcement can prevent addiction and save many lives."

Researchers reviewed mortality data from the Florida Department of Health and the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics collected between 2003 and 2012. Rates of death from prescription opioid, heroin, or any opioid drug overdose were compared between the two states.

The data showed an estimated 1,029 fewer people in Florida died of prescription drug overdoses than had been estimated without the law, which was passed in 2010. Beginning with the year 2010, painkiller overdose deaths decreased from the year before by 7.4 percent, by 20.1 percent in 2011 and by 34.5 percent in 2012.

In comparison, rates in North Carolina continued to increase -- four-fold from 2011 to 2012 -- without controls on opioid prescriptions similar to those in Florida.

"Florida's focus on these pill mills seems to have been an effective way to reduce overdose deaths in the state," said Dr. Alene Kennedy-Hendricks, an assistant scientist at Johns Hopkins. "An added benefit of Florida's increased oversight of unethical businesses and providers dispensing large quantities of narcotics may be that they may have prevented new cases of heroin addiction from developing as well. Other states should consider restrictions on pill mills as one potential way to reduce prescription painkiller overdose deaths."

The study is published in the American Journal of Public Health.

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