Opioid painkillers are more likely to be found in South Jersey medicine cabinets than in those of homes elsewhere in the state, a new poll suggests.
About one in three New Jersey households was prescribed opioid painkillers in the past year, according to the recent New Jersey Health and Well-Being Poll by the Rutgers University Center for State Health Policy, and South Jersey respondents reported higher rates of those prescriptions than residents of other regions.
“It’s (opioid addiction) clearly a huge public health problem,” said Joel Cantor, poll investigator and policy center director. “The data on death rates and overdoses … it’s truly an epidemic in New Jersey and throughout the country, and it very often starts with prescribed painkillers.”
Assemblyman-elect John Armato said he and others have supported organizations in South Jersey that are focusing their efforts on the growing issue.
“It has to be a group effort,” he said. “We have to attack it together to help people.”
Atlantic County Freeholder-elect Ashley Bennett has worked in the field of mental health and addiction for about 10 years, seeing the impact addiction to opioid painkillers, heroin and other drugs has had on individuals and families.
As a freeholder, she hopes to get involved in initiatives and laws that focus on early intervention, treatment for people suffering co-occurring diagnoses and supportive services in local communities.
“There isn’t anyone that hasn’t been touched,” Bennett said.
State experts estimate 2016 overdose deaths eclipsed 2015’s toll of 1,587, most of whom died from taking heroin or prescription opioids, data from the state Medical Examiner’s Office show.
For every 100 people in New Jersey, 52.6 prescriptions were filled in 2016, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Minimal differences in poll responses were seen among different age groups, education levels, race, income and employment. What stuck out the most, Cantor said, were the variations in responses between different regions of the state.
About 46 percent of poll respondents in the southeast, including Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties, reported they or family members living with them had been prescribed an opioid pain reliever, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone or codeine, in the past year.
It was more than double the percentage reported among respondents in the northeast, including Passaic, Bergen, Union, Essex and Hudson counties, which reported 21 percent.
Cantor said the southern half of the state as a whole reported higher prescribing rates than the northern half.
The Rutgers poll was conducted Oct. 12 through Nov. 19. Experts interviewed 1,052 adults throughout the state by telephone.
Investigators asked respondents to report whether they or a family member had planned to keep unused portions of prescriptions for future use, and more than one-third of state residents said yes.
People in the southern part of the state reported they were more likely do to that than residents living in the central or northeastern parts.
“The percentage reporting prescriptions in the southeast, at 46 percent, is jaw-dropping,” Cantor said. “We really don’t think that means there’s that much more controlled pain in the south than normal, but it probably has more to do with the prescribing practices among providers in the south. We need to dig deeper and see what’s driving that prescribing in those regions.”
Poll investigators also asked people whether they or family members were using a pain reliever in a way not directed by doctors, whether they were addicted to pain relievers or heroin, and whether they sought care for addiction to opioids or heroin in the past year.
A majority of residents in all regions of the state said it is extremely or very important for New Jersey’s new government leaders to address addiction going forward.
Cantor said while the poll results should not be used as a formula for making policies, funding decisions and addiction legislation, it does give experts a better idea of where to do more research and find the reasons certain differences exist between regions when it comes to prescribing and addiction.
“This problem is not going to be easy to fix,” he said. “There needs to be a collaboration between experts, pharmaceutical companies and government, as well as more investments in treatment resources.”
To read more about the report, visit cshp.rutgers.edu