A short letter printed in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1980 may be the cause of the current opioid epidemic. The letter written by Dr. Hershel Jick and his graduate student, Jane Porter, was widely referenced by doctors, academic researchers, pharmaceutical companies, and many others as evidence that few people would become addicted to opioids. The letter, only five sentences long, stated that in their findings, four out of 12,000 people became addicted to prescription medications.
The New England Journal of Medicine, according to The Washington Post, published data from Canadian researchers showing the wide-ranging and danger effects of “letter’s influence.” Pamela T.M. Leung of the University of Toronto found that the letter was cited over 600 times by academic researchers in published papers. What’s more, the researchers say is that the letter is often quoting the original letter often and carelessly.
The researchers showed that the original letter, nicknamed “Porter and Jick,” only concerned patients in hospitals, who were being monitored by professional staff. Many of the published articles were “grossly misrepresented.” This misrepresentation most likely “contributed” to the current opioid epidemic. The Porter and Jick letter was cited over and over, even as recent as 2002, that opioid addiction was “very rare.”
Since 1999 almost 200,000 people have died from opioid overdoses while much more people struggle with addiction. CNN reported that nearly 100 individuals in the U.S. die from an opioid overdose.
Jick, who is now at the Boston University School of Medicine, said the letter was never intended for physicians to use outside the hospital and without strict supervision. He went on to blame the pharmaceutical companies for the opioid epidemic. The editors of the New England Journal of Medicine now publish the letter with an editor’s note stating that the Porter and Jick letter was cited heavily without proper evidence. The authors wrote that the manufacturers of OxyContin plead “guilty to federal criminal charges that they misled” many about addiction and opioids.
Since the opioid epidemic has increased, “references to the letter have decreased.” To help fight opioid overdose, naloxone is being offered over the counter to assist those who are currently overdosing. Public education about the dangers of opioid abuse has also increased. Though, physicians still widely prescribe opioid to help patients in pain instead of offering alternative medication.
By Cheryl Werber