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New Study Shows That Public Sees Opiate Epidemic As A Law Enforcement Issue

Science tells us that addiction is a disease, but many people continue to struggle with seeing it as such. Even as the number of people and communities that have been affected by the opiate epidemic grows, many see opioid abuse as a problem that should be dealt with by the criminal justice system instead of a health problem. A new study that was released recently shows that many people across the nation believe that using law enforcement is the best way to address the opiate epidemic.

As illegal drug dealing has been gaining more nationwide coverage, the growing tide of prescription opiate abuse has been a major headline across thousands of new sources. A recent analysis by researchers with the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health showed that two-thirds of opiate abusers in the news are shown as being actively engaged in criminal activity. In addition, the solutions that are offered in these news stories will usually include law enforcement. 64% of them showed that either arresting people who illegally purchase and sell painkillers or arresting the physicians who provided them was the best option.

This number greatly outweighs the number of news stories that show prevention options (41%) or expanding treatment (3%). These numbers were surprising to assistant professor Emma McGinty, who is the lead author of the study that was conducted at John Hopkins. She expected to see a shift in the public's focus, away from law enforcement and towards behavioral and public health.

"For some reason, Americans continue to view drug abuse and addiction as some sort of failing instead of a disease," states McGinty. "It is very hard to overcome and remarkably persistent."

Given that more than two million people across the nation have either abused or have been dependent upon prescription opiates in 2013, and more than 16,000 people died in the same year, this thought process is incredibly damaging.

Through analyzation of news coverage from mainstream sources, John Hopkins was able to accurately gauge the public discussion around the opiate epidemic. They carefully screens 673 stories in major market television as well as printed outlets between the years of 1998 and 2012. This method also shows data about how news and media coverage of issues influences major discussions in the public.

In addition to the data shown above, the study found that less than half of the stories bothered to mention that opiates were an effective solution for treating chronic pain. Less than one percent of news coverage showed that there were efforts for harm reduction from this epidemic, such as offering reduced criminal charges if an addict seeks medical help for someone who is overdosing.

However, near the end of the study there was some data that showed that more news outlets were starting to cover prevention and treatment options more frequently. While they are far outweighed by the law enforcement and criminal activity side that is frequently shown, McGinty says that this is a glimmer of hope from a public health perspective.

This study was published last Tuesday in the Psychiatric Services journal online


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