Fewer than 7% reported taking advantage of “take-back” programs to turn in unused pain medication to pharmacies, police departments, or the Drug Enforcement Administration for disposal.
Opioid overuse is already at a crisis level, but a compounding factor is that leftover pills aren’t being disposed of properly.
Often, pills are saved for later and even shared with others, according to a study in JAMA Internal Medicine by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The nationally representative survey of 1,032 people who had used opioids in the past year found that among those who were no longer using prescription pain relievers (592 respondents):
- 60.6% reported having leftover pills
- 61.3% of those with leftover pills said they had kept them for future use rather than disposing of them
- 20% reported they’d shared their medication with another person. Nearly 14% said they were likely to share their prescription painkillers with a family member in the future, and nearly 8% said they would share with a close friend
“The fact that people are sharing their leftover prescription painkillers at such high rates is a big concern,” the study’s senior author, Colleen L. Barry, PhD, MPP, said in a statement.
“It’s fine to give a friend a Tylenol if they’re having pain, but it’s not fine to give your OxyContin to someone without a prescription.”
Barry directs Bloomberg’s Center for Mental Health and Addiction Policy Research.
Improper Pill Disposal
Researchers also found that improper storage and disposal of opioids is a problem, and nearly half or respondents said they weren’t given information about either.
Nearly half of those surveyed reported receiving no information on how to safely store their medications, either to keep them away from young children who could accidentally ingest them, or to keep them from adolescents or other adults looking to get high. Fewer than 10% said they kept their opioid pain medication in a locked location.
Patients were also not given information on how to safely dispose of their medications. Fewer than 7% of people with extra pills reported taking advantage of “take-back” programs that enable patients to turn in unused pain medication to pharmacies, police departments, or the Drug Enforcement Administration for disposal.
Fewer than 10% reported throwing out leftover medication in the trash after mixing it with an inedible such as used coffee grounds, which is considered a safe method for disposing of medication.
The Johns Hopkins study comes as organizations ranging from the CDC to private insurance companies ratchet up their efforts to curb opioid use and abuse.
Cigna has set a goal to cut opioid use by 25% among its customers over three years, which would restore usage to 2006 levels.
It says it will limit the quantity of painkillers when appropriate and treat substance abuse like other chronic diseases.