A crackdown on Florida’s “pill mills” – clinics dispensing large quantities of prescription painkillers often for cash-only and without proper medical examinations – appears to have dramatically reduced the number of overdose deaths in the state from these drugs and may have also led to a drop in heroin overdose deaths, new research suggests.
The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers, publishing their findings December 21 in the American Journal of Public Health, say an estimated 1,029 fewer people in Florida lost their lives to prescription painkiller overdoses over a 34-month period than would have had the state not taken aim at pill mills. Florida passed new laws in 2010 and 2011 establishing oversight over pain clinics and restricting the dispensing of opioids there, while major drug law enforcement initiatives arrested and prosecuted those operating them.
The researchers also found substantially fewer deaths in Florida from overdoses involving either prescription painkillers or heroin during 2011 and 2012, a finding that calls into question claims that reducing prescription painkiller diversion will increase overall heroin use. Rates of prescription painkiller addiction are at historic highs and a portion of those abusing these medications have switched to heroin, which can be cheaper and, in some cases, easier to obtain. Other research has found that four out of five new heroin users first used prescription painkillers. What could be happening in Florida, they say, is that with less access to prescription painkillers, fewer people may be developing an addiction, which in turn may prevent people from later transitioning to heroin.