Doctors in poor areas prescribe up to FOUR times as many high-strength opioid painkillers because patients are ‘more likely to do manual work, be smokers or suffer depression’
- Blackpool and St Helens have the highest levels of opioid prescriptions
- Experts warn the medications, including codeine and morphine, are addictive
- People in London are prescribed the drugs less often than those in the north
People living in poorer areas of England are prescribed more heavy duty painkillers than those in wealthy regions.
A study has found patients in the north are prescribed nearly four times as many opioids – such as codeine, tramadol and morphine – as those in the south.
Doctors in Blackpool and St Helens, Merseyside, dole out the most prescriptions for the controversial drugs.
And these same areas are among the least well off and least healthy across the country, which researchers said shows health inequalities and a north-south divide.
Experts suggest higher levels of taxing manual labour, smoking and depression could contribute to people in the north suffering more pain.
Experts warn people living in poorer areas of England are more at risk of a drug overdose from drugs like codeine, tramadol and morphine because levels of prescriptions are higher
Researchers at the universities of Nottingham and Manchester delved into NHS GP prescribing figures for Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and London.
They found eight of the 10 areas with the most prescriptions were all north of Nottingham, with one in the East Midlands and another in East Anglia.
The lowest number of opioid prescriptions was in London. There are four times fewer opioids prescribed in the least affected areas than the most, the study claimed.
Opioids are among the strongest painkillers used by the NHS but – as members of the same chemical family as heroin – are highly addictive.
Scientists said their findings show a direct link between opioid use and an area’s level of wealth and education – and people who are better off use fewer drugs.
This also makes people in less wealthy areas more likely to have a drug overdose, because they likely have easier access to them and potentially a higher tolerance.
‘This study shows that your socioeconomic status has a strong association with opiate prescribing for pain,’ said Manchester’s Dr Teng-Chou Chen.
‘We don’t yet know why this is, but if for example you are a manual worker, which is more likely in socially deprived areas, then you’re more likely to have [muscle and skeleton] problems and therefore need opiates.
OPIOID DEATHS DOUBLED IN THE US BETWEEN 2006 AND 2016
In the early 2000s, the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started to notice a steady increase in cases of opioid addiction and overdose. In 2013, they issued guidelines to curb addiction.
However, that same year – now regarded as the year the epidemic took hold – a CDC report revealed an unprecedented surge in rates of opioid addiction.
By May 2018 overdose deaths had, for the first time, become the leading cause of death among young Americans – killing more in a year than were ever killed annually by HIV, gun violence or car crashes.
Preliminary CDC data, published by the New York Times, showed that US drug overdose deaths surged 19 percent to at least 59,000 in 2016.
This was up from 52,404 in 2015, and double the death rate from 2006.
‘Smoking and depression are also more prevalent in poorer areas, but whatever the causes, it’s clear that people living in more deprived areas are at more risk of overdose and it is helpful for clinicians to be aware of this.’
The other areas making up the 10 worst affected are Lincolnshire East, Knowsley, Barnsley, Corby, Halton, Great Yarmouth, Doncaster and South Tees.
High use of opioids is a concern because people can become dependent on the drugs and also build up a tolerance, meaning they need to take more to relieve pain.
Increasing doses raises the risk of an overdose – the US is in the grip of an epidemic of people becoming hooked on the painkillers and overdosing.
The US declared it had an addiction epidemic in 2013 because of the drug fentanyl, which is stronger than heroin, and opioid deaths doubled in 10 years.
Dr Roger Knaggs, from the University of Nottingham, said: ‘Opioids are some of the most potent medicines for pain relief available at present, however they do not work for all types of pain or for everybody.
‘Whilst they often are of help for pain following injury or an operation, and for pain at the end of life, there are only modest benefits for many types of chronic pain, such as back pain, arthritis and nerve pain.
‘We need to understand more about why opioids are prescribed more commonly in areas of greater deprivation and to ensure there is collaboration between different parts of the healthcare system to provide appropriate services and support are available for people who are prescribed opioids.’
The research was published in the International Journal of Drug Policy.