Opioid Abuse Crisis

Last updated on May 6, 2019

In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expressed concern that physicians were contributing to the opioid epidemic by over-prescribing the drugs. Recent evidence shows that doctors paid attention. In July, Blue Cross Blue Shield reported 2017 numbers showing fewer opioid prescriptions and an increase in new prescriptions meeting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s chronic pain prescription guidelines.

State governments have also moved from “voluntary” measures to legislative efforts that target how opioid prescriptions are written and dispensed. Michigan’s law limits patients to a 7-day supply of opioid painkillers for acute pain. Florida’s limit is just three days. New laws in Tennessee limit the number of opioids doctors can prescribe and the amount of a prescription a pharmacist can fill at one time. In 2017, North Carolina legislators passed the “STOP ACT” to limit opioid prescription amounts for acute injuries.

Alarming Statistics About Opioid Use

State governments have a right to be worried. Tennessee’s 2019 state budget, for example, contains $30 million in spending for opioid abuse “prevention, treatment, and law enforcement.” The prescription drug crisis affects every region of the country, 70% of workplaces, and Americans of all ages. These numbers show the impact:

  • In 2016, over eleven million Americans age 12 or older misused prescription pain medications, while 948,000 used heroin.
  • Every 25 minutes, a baby is born suffering from opioid withdrawal.
  • In 2017, more than 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses. Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids account for approximately 30,000 of those deaths.
  • Drug use affects the labor force. Many employers report problems recruiting enough workers because so many applicants fail drug tests. Drug use and unemployment hurt entire families, not just the abuser.

Social Media Offers New Opportunities for Opioid Abuse – and Treatment

Social media allows people to keep in touch with their old friends, schoolmates, family members – and drug dealers. Hashtags and algorithms are designed to help personalize content based on search history. Unfortunately, these algorithms are inherently non-judgmental. They don’t care if you’re searching for #BuyVicodin or #BuyLocal. Either way, searchers get the results they’re looking for, The Washington Post reported:

The prevalence of drug posts on social media — which the FDA says has helped fuel the opioid epidemic that claimed more than 40,000 lives in the United States last year — shows how tech firms are often outsmarted by the software they created. […] The most common features of social platforms, such as hashtags and algorithms that deliver personalized feeds, drive drug-sale posts directly to users who have expressed interest in them — potentially exposing the most vulnerable people to addictive drugs.

Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia has suggested legislation that would hold social media companies liable for illegal drug dealers who use their platforms.

The companies are implementing strategies to respond to the problem.

  • After a moderately successful attempt to ban drug-related hashtags early in 2018, Instagram has begun serving up a pop-up about opioid addiction support when users search on specific hashtags.
  • Facebook changed search results to block posts and pages related to painkillers and other drugs. It also launched a new feature that redirects people searching for opioids to a federal helpline.
  • Twitter faced criticism for displaying ads on “Twitter profiles created to promote the illegal sale of narcotics.” The company’s CEO was confronted during a congressional hearing with Twitter ads promoting illegal drugs.

Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. It’s not as simple as blocking specific hashtags because some people searching on them are looking for help with addiction, not a new drug dealer.

Individuals Can Help Fight the Opioid Epidemic

Treatment, laws, and physician guidelines are all important. However, much of the problem begins at home, where people store unused, unwanted drugs in their medicine cabinets. As many as 92% of patients don’t finish their painkillers, and fewer than 10% safely dispose of the leftover pills. Over half people who misuse prescription drugs get them from friends or family, according to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health.

SAMHSA and NSDUH - Opioid Abuse Crisis

Source: SAMHSA and NSDUH

Fortunately, households with unwanted medication can choose between several safe disposal options.

Community Drug Take Back Days are semi-annual events held every April and October. The Drug Enforcement Administration’s website has a search tool to find the nearest event near you.

Drug take back events help raise awareness of the dangers of leftover prescription drugs, but consumers who rely on them may still have to keep unused medication on hand for months. Check with your local healthcare providers or law enforcement to see if they offer year-round collection kiosks like the Sharps Compliance MedSafe medication disposal system.

There are no federal regulations governing household disposal, though some local governments do prohibit trash disposal. Be sure to do careful research before disposing of medications in the trash. The San Francisco Department of the Environment highlighted safety and regulatory concerns, with in-home medicine disposal products, noting:

“None of the medicine disposal products are approved by the DEA, the EPA, or any federal agency, which do not evaluate or endorse such products.”

Sharps Compliance Takeaway Medication Recovery Systems are DEA-compliant, safe and secure disposal solutions for households. Our envelopes offer the USPS-mailback option for small quantities of unused medication. We also have secure, specially designed boxes for larger quantities. Envelopes and boxes are pre-addressed with prepaid postage for return to our facility for proper disposal.

Always consider the community and environmental effects before you put unwanted medication in household trash or flush it down the toilet. For additional information, please review our infographic that highlights the dangers of improper disposal of medical and pharmaceutical wastes.


Wanda Voigt holds a BA in Nursing from Texas Woman’s University and a BBA in Business Management from Texas A&M University. In Fall 2021, Wanda will begin her Master Jurisprudence in Health Law and Policy at Texas A&M University. Wanda has over 20 years of clinical practice in both hospital and private practice practicing in various specialties.

As the Director of Regulatory Compliance, Wanda assists Sharps’ customers in evaluating current federal and state-specific medical and pharmaceutical waste regulations, implementing compliant regulated medical and pharmaceutical waste management programs and processes, and developing training programs for both internal and external customers.

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