graph showng the number of deaths rising sharply since 2011
Source, Graph: N.C. State Center for Health Statistics, Vital Statistics, Deaths, 1999 -2016. Analysis by Injury Epidemiology and Surveillance Unit

By Taylor Knopf

In a recent survey of North Carolina voters, the majority indicated that they have not been personally impacted by prescription pain pill abuse. However, most believe that the problem deserves medical attention rather than involvement from the criminal justice system.

Survey responders were split on whether the opioid epidemic in the state has gotten enough attention.

In the latest statewide Elon University poll, North Carolina voters were asked for their thoughts on the growing problem of opioid abuse and overdose.

Elon surveyed 771 registered North Carolina voters by phone between Nov. 6 and 9. NC Health News helped shape the opioid-related questions for the poll.

“Our data clearly show that North Carolina voters see opioid abuse as a significant issue worthy of attention,” said Jason Husser, director of the Elon Poll and assistant professor of political science, in a press release.

About 45 percent of those surveyed said the issue of opioid abuse is not getting enough attention, while 39 percent think the issue has gotten the right amount.

However, only 31 percent said that they, a family member or friend had been personally impacted by the epidemic. That about one in three North Carolinians.

Approximately 59 percent of those surveyed said they believed prescription pills were a larger problem than street drugs such as heroin (26 percent). The opioid overdose numbers collected nationally and by the state include both prescription pain pills and heroin.

When asked whether their community had sufficient resources to deal with opioid abuse, 43 percent said no, 28 percent said yes, and 28 percent were undecided.

Only 21 percent of those surveyed said the problem of illegal use of prescription drugs should be dealt with through the criminal justice system. In contrast, 56 percent said it should be treated by doctors through the medical system.

The poll breaks responses down by age group, gender, race, political affiliation and county location (rural/urban/suburb). When the responses were separated into these categories, the results generally mirrored the response of the group as a whole with a few exceptions.

Very few Democrats and Independents (18 percent) said the criminal justice system should handle illegal prescription drug use, while 31 percent of the Republicans said it should.

Additionally, 43 percent of millennials (age 18- 36) said they or someone they knew has been impacted by opioid abuse. Meanwhile, 32 percent of Baby Boomers and only 18 percent of the oldest people surveyed said they have been personally touched by the problem.

“The groups most likely to say they have been personally impacted by opioid addiction are whites, men, Millennials, and those from suburban counties,” Husser said in a press release. “This largely tracks overdose statistics in North Carolina and in the nation as a whole.”

Opioid deaths on the rise

Prescription drug overdose deaths in the U.S. have quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 183,000 people died in the U.S. from opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2015.

North Carolina has paralleled the nation, with overdose deaths climbing from 109 deaths in 1999 to 1,384 in 2016. A total of 10,993 North Carolinians died from opioid overdose during that time.

According to state Health and Human Services Sec. Mandy Cohen, North Carolina will likely see an average of four deaths a day from opioids soon.

Emergency department visits due to opioid overdoses have increased across the state, from 3,155 in 2011 to 4,236 this year, which is not yet over.

Map of opioid overdoses across NC with large black dots indicating which counties have the highest rates.
Rates of Unintentional/Undetermined Prescription Opioid Overdose
Deaths & Outpatient Opioid Analgesic Prescriptions Dispensed
North Carolina Residents, 2011-2015
Source: Deaths – N.C. State Center for Health Statistics, Vital Statistics,
2011-2015, National Center for Health Statistics, 2011-2015/ Opioid Dispensing-
Controlled Substance Reporting System, NC Division of Mental Health, 2011-2015
Analysis: Injury and Epidemiology Surveillance Unit

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Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...