Delaware Public Media

Is access to painkillers causing spike in fentanyl fatalities?

Feb 16, 2017


Fentanyl-related overdose deaths in Delaware nearly tripled over the last year, and a University of Delaware professor believes the problem centers on a national demand for painkillers.


The number of fentanyl-related deaths in Delaware jumped from 42 in 2015 to 120 in 2016, which UD sociology professor Tammy Anderson said is not surprising. She said the trend is not limited to Delaware. Overdose-related deaths - particularly fentanyl - are on the rise across the country. 


Anderson said she feels efforts to address this growing problem should start in the doctor’s office.


“I do think the American public’s demand for pain medication has to be part of the solution,” Anderson said. “And we have to wean the country off its demand for painkillers.”


Anderson said she believes some of the fentanyl deaths can be traced to people who got addicted to opiates because of a pre-existing medical conditions - just one category of the fentanyl-related deaths. The others are people under 30 who are experimenting, and people 30 to 50 who got addicted through prescribed medications.


But prescribed fentanyl is not as much of a problem as illegal synthetic forms of fentanyl. Anderson said fentanyl is often passed off in other forms on the street such as heroin or fake prescription pills.


“Users are both seeking stronger opiates and are open to some of these new forms of illegal fentanyl,” Anderson said, “or they’re unknowingly consuming them.”


The Department of Health and Social Services said in an email, that they too, believe the problem with overdose is the combination of the availability of legal and illegal opioids and the fact that people are now getting fentanyl from the streets in addition to the doctor's office.


"DPH/DHSS takes the rise of painkillers very seriously which is why the Prescription Drug Action Committee was created several years ago," said Emily Knearl, the communications director for the Department of Public Health. "We work across several agencies on this topic, including partnering with the Division of Professional Regulation in support of their new rules to tighten prescribing practices.  Plus on-going work to reduce diversion (where people steal prescription drugs from medicine cabinets), increase the safe places for drug disposal and educate the community and medical providers on the dangers of prescription drugs"


Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered new guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain that lasts at least three months.


Delaware’s Division of Professional Regulation also recently added new regulations increasing its monitoring of chronic pain patients who use opioids, and they're limiting the amount of opiates given to new patients.