MILWAUKEE -- In a development that observers say suggests a corner may have been turned, for the first time in years prescriptions for narcotic painkillers in the United States did not increase last year.
New data provided to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel shows that prescriptions for opioids flattened to 241 million in 2012, down slightly from 243 million in 2011.
That represents the first time since 2006 that prescriptions of opioids did not increase, according to data provided by IMS Health, a drug market research firm. Data before 2006 was not available.
Other research indicates there has been a fourfold increase in opioid sales since 1999. At the same time, overdose deaths and addiction rates have soared.
"I think we are turning a corner," said G. Caleb Alexander, an associate professor of epidemiology and medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. "This may herald further changes to come."
More and more stakeholders, including doctors, hospitals, nonprofits and regulators, are realizing the scope of the opioid epidemic, said Alexander, co-director of the school's Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 16,651 people died of an overdose involving a prescription opioid in 2010, the most recent year data was available. In 1999, there were 4,030 such deaths.
In addition to the overdose deaths, there were 425,000 emergency department visits for misuse or abuse of opioids, including overdoses, up from 166,338 in 2004.
Earlier Journal Sentinel found that the increase in opioid use over the last decade or so was linked to pharmaceutical industry funding of nonprofit groups and prominent doctors that advocated for more liberalized use of the drugs for treatment of chronic, non-cancer pain.
Before, the drugs were used mainly for cancer and end-of-life pain as well as short-term pain.