A new study shows that Black and Hispanic people received fewer prescriptions when synthetic opioid pain medications were new, but are now as likely, if not more likely, to be treated with the drugs. Photo by LizM/Pixabay
Dec. 7 (UPI) -- Black and Hispanic adults in the United States were less likely to be given opioids for pain management than White adults in 1990s, when they were new to market, though they are much more likely to be prescribed them now, an analysis published Tuesday by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found.
By the mid 2000s, prescription opioid use among Black adults matched that of White adults, despite increased awareness of the risk for addiction associated with the medications, the data showed.
The findings highlight potential racial disparities in prescribing new drugs and perhaps even undertreatment of pain conditions in people of color, the researchers said.
"In the late 90s, doctors weren't prescribing opioids to people of color with the same frequency that they were prescribing them to their White patients," study co-author Virginia Chang said in a press release.
"Prior research shows that underrepresented racial groups are less likely to be given new prescription medications," said Chang, associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at New York University's School of Global Public Health in New York City.
Earlier research has shown that even with comparable pain, Hispanic people are less likely to receive opioid prescriptions than White people or Black people.
Opiates such as laudanum, opium and morphine have been used for centuries to relieve pain and to provide anesthesia during surgery, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
However, these naturally occurring drugs, derived from the poppy plant, were also highly addictive and used as recreational drugs.
The first synthetic opioids developed by pharmaceutical companies, including oxycodone, were initially used in the treatment of cancer and post-surgical pain, though physicians began prescribing them for chronic pain conditions.
By 2004, they were the most commonly prescribed painkillers in the United States, Chang and her colleagues said.
This widespread use of the drugs has been blamed for the ongoing "opioid crisis" in the United States, which has seen millions of people become addicted to them --with some turning to "street" opiates, such as heroin, particularly after new prescribing restrictions limited their availability.
In 2020, an estimated 100,000 people nationally died from opioid-related drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For this study, Chang and her colleagues analyzed the use of prescription opioids and other painkillers among 250,596 adults in the United States between 1996 and 2017.
In 1996, 12% of White people used prescription opioids, compared with 10% of Hispanic people and 9% of Black people reported using the pain medications, the data showed.
By the early 2000s, prescription opioid use increased across all races and ethnicities, eclipsing non-opioid painkiller use among Black people and White people, the researchers said.
In 2005, 15% of White people, 15% of Black people and 11% of Hispanic people reported using the pain medications, the data showed.
After adoption of new guidelines and limits at the state and federal levels during the 2010s, prescription opioid use declined across all groups, according to the researchers.
In 2017, 13% of White people, 12% of Black people and 9% of Hispanic people reported using the pain medications, the data showed.
Although this under-prescribing by race may be protective against misuse, it may also represent undertreatment of pain within certain groups, the researchers said.
"Media coverage of opioid use often differs by race and ethnicity, where prescription opioid misuse is portrayed to primarily affect Whites, and illicit opioids are associated with people of color," Chang said.
"However, Blacks were as likely as Whites to use prescription opioids in the mid 2000s and 2010s, suggesting that they may also be at increased risk for prescription misuse," she said.