Mainstream media is more likely to portray opioid abuse as a problem for law enforcement to tackle, rather than a treatable health condition that pharmacists can help address.

A new study examined the media’s framing of opioid abuse between 1998 and 2012. More than 670 news stories were reviewed, and 4 domains that can influence public thought were measured: causes, solutions, consequences, and individual depictions.

“News media depictions of persons abusing opioid analgesics are important in the context of already high levels of stigma toward persons with substance use conditions in the United States, which could be further exacerbated by negative depictions,” the researchers noted.

Illegal drug dealing was the most-cited cause, while solutions tended to revolve around arrests and prosecutions of individuals involved in opioid diversion.

The use of prescription drug monitoring programs was listed more frequently in the later years of the study period. However, the researchers also found that fewer than 5% of the news stories mentioned expansions in substance abuse treatment or medications such as buprenorphine.

The study examined print news from the 4 highest-circulation national newspapers and one of the highest-circulation newspapers each in the Northeast, South, Midwest, and West, as well as TV news from the 3 largest broadcast TV networks.

The search terms that the researchers pinpointed included painkillers, OxyContin, addict, and overdose.

The total amount of news stories that mentioned opioid abuse was 4625 for print and 654 for TV.

The researchers then took a 40% random sampling of the print stories (1850) and included all of the TV stories, then cut this down to 437 news stories and 236 TV transcripts after excluding those that were not primarily focused on opioid abuse.

Some of their findings included:
  • The number of opioid abuse stories increased over the study period (63 stories were written or broadcast in 2012, compared with 13 stories in 1998).
  • 44% mentioned that opioids were effective at treating pain.
  • OxyContin and Vicodin were the most-cited painkillers. 
  • Among the stories that listed a cause for the abuse, illicit drug dealing was the most common, followed by physician-related causes
    • 45% stated that it was relatively easy to get a prescription from a physician
    • 28% stated that physicians often prescribe opioids at “inappropriately high” doses or provide more pills than necessary.
  • 8% noted that pharmaceutical companies typically do not disclose opioid use risks with patients.
  • Law enforcement solutions were most common (64%) among the news stories, while substance abuse treatment expansion and harm-reduction policies were listed in only 3% and 1% of stories, respectively.
  • Addiction or dependence were the most-cited health consequences, followed by death and overdose.
  • No stories mentioned naloxone.
  • More than 80% of stories included a depiction of a single opioid abuser, with two-thirds painting a portrait of a person involved in criminal activity.
“Results of a recent experimental study suggest that portrayals of successful treatment of opioid analgesic abuse can improve public attitudes toward and reduce willingness to discriminate against individuals experiencing the condition, but only slightly over one-third of news stories depicted an individual engaging in treatment,” the researchers noted.

They argued more generally that the media has the ability to influence policymakers’ thoughts on how to address the problem of opioid abuse.

“The findings underscore the need to continue efforts to reframe opioid analgesic abuse as a treatable condition addressable via well-established public health and behavioral health approaches,” the researchers concluded.

Maine legislators recently debated whether drug abuse was a health care crisis or a law enforcement matter.

Governor Paul LePage argued that the state should be targeting drug dealers instead of addicts, while Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves maintained that the solution would be to improve access to health care and substance abuse treatment.

Two large substance abuse clinics in the state closed in 2015, and both facilities cited a lack of government support as the reason for their closures.