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Opinion: New Year’s Resolution — Clean out Your Medicine Chest

Nearly one-in-three Garden State families have a member who was prescribed opioids in the past year, and many plan to keep unused portions

Joel C. Cantor
Credit: Amanda Brown
Joel Cantor, director of the Rutgers Center for State Health Policy

Tackling the epidemic of opioid abuse and deaths has been a signature issue of Gov. Chris Christie, but with his departure from office, policymakers should resist the temptation to turn the page on this issue. The New Jersey public clearly agrees that addressing addiction should remain a high priority for Gov.-elect Phil Murphy and the incoming state Legislature.

According to the latest Health and Well-Being Poll, conducted by the Rutgers Center for State Health Policy, three-fourths of New Jersey adults believe that addressing drug addiction is an “extremely” or “very” important” priority for incoming Trenton policymakers.

The poll revealed another important fact: nearly one in three New Jersey households had a member prescribed an opioid pain reliever in the past year, and many of those plan to keep these highly addictive medicines around after their intended use. This is true even for families with children in the household. It means that opioids are in the medicine chests of millions of New Jersey homes.

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Conducted in October and November of this year with a representative sample of 1,052 New Jersey adults, the poll showed that opioid prescribing is prevalent among all demographic groups in the state. Prescribing is a bit higher in households of younger respondents and among higher-income and white respondents.

But these demographic differences are small compared to very wide differences by region. Almost half (46 percent) of households in southeastern New Jersey had an opioid prescribed in the past year, compared to less than a quarter (22 percent) in the northeastern part of the state. This is a troubling pattern. It seems unlikely that those in the south have that much more pain to manage than others, and the geographic disparity parallels regional differences in rates of opioid-related overdoses and deaths.

Since this is the time when we make New Year’s resolutions, the Health and Well-Being Poll suggests a good one for all of us: Clean out the medicine chest. Another is for our policymakers, healthcare providers, drug makers, insurers, and others to continue to come together to do more to address the epidemic.

The Health and Well-Being Poll was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Joel C. Cantor is the director of the Center for State Health Policy and distinguished professor of public policy at Rutgers University. The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author and are not endorsed by funders of the Center for State Health Policy.

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