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News coverage of opioid-related deaths often precede an increase in deaths, study finds

November 18, 2009

Boston, Mass. -- Increases in deaths from opioid drugs such as OxyContin may be linked to the volume of coverage such deaths receive in the news, according to a study from Children's Hospital Boston and the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill. The study compared patterns of opioid deaths and patterns of news coverage between 1999 and 2005, during which time mortality rates from opioid abuse doubled. It found that spikes in media coverage often preceded an increase in deaths, suggesting that media coverage -- even when negative -- may have influenced opioid abuse.

Monthly opioid-related news articles and opioid-related poisoning mortality, 1999-2005, United States. Print news media articles consistently preceded mortality by a few months.

Previous research indicates that in more than 16 states, there are more drug overdose deaths than deaths from firearms or motor vehicle accidents, and the bulk of these overdoses are from prescription opioids. "The question we had is whether the news media is providing perspective on what’s happening, or whether the media is inadvertently fueling the problem by advertising the issue," says senior investigator John Brownstein, PhD, of the Children's Hospital Informatics Program (CHIP) and Children's Division of Emergency Medicine.

The paper, "Breaking the News or Fueling the Epidemic? Temporal association between news media report volume and opioid-related mortality," is published inPLoS One on November 18.

This is the first time research has quantitatively sought to assess the relationship between opioid abuse and the national news, according to Brownstein, although anecdotal information about a link between news reports and drug use date back to the 1950s, when amphetamine abuse was a common news topic.

Brownstein, Nabarun Dasgupta, MPH, of UNC and Kenneth Mandl, MD, MPH, of CHIP and Children's Division of Emergency Medicine consulted death records from theNational Center for Health Statistics from 1999 to 2005, the most recently available timeframe when causes of death from opioid abuse were recorded under consistent guidelines. The team compared these data to a Google News search of articles appearing during the same period that contained the names of opioids such as codeine, oxycodone and fentanyl. Articles mentioned opioids within a variety of different contexts, ranging from celebrity scandals to federal government hearings.

The records showed 30,916 deaths related to prescription opioids. At the beginning of the study, the mortality rate from opioid abuse was 0.81 deaths per one million people per month. By the end of the study, that rate was more than doubled at 1.9 deaths per one million people. The natural assumption, Brownstein says, is that increases in deaths from opioids would be followed by increases in media coverage of the problem, reflecting reporting on issues of social concern. But statistical analysis showed that the reverse was true - within two to six months after major media reporting, opioid-related deaths increased.

The researchers caution that their study could not actually demonstrate that news coverage caused any opioid-related deaths. Opioid overdose is a multi-factorial problem that entails social environment, genetics, and personal issues, as well as prescribing practices and pharmaceutical promotion. Because the team did not investigate those factors, they cannot say whether or not news coverage is a stronger factor.

However, Brownstein hopes the study will promote dialogue about journalistic standards of reporting drug-related stories.

"The study opens our attention to the fact that the media potentially plays a role, among other factors leading people to abuse these drugs," Brownstein says. "It tells us we should monitor the media as a valuable source of data, but at the same time, we really need to think about how the media reports these things."

The authors suggest that stories about drugs follow guidelines similar to what psychiatrists and professional journalism organizations recommend for stories about suicides; under those guidelines, specific details are withheld so as not to inspire copycat suicides.

"We aren't saying that the news media are creating new drug users. But, the way in which some stories are presented can pique the curiosity of those inclined to drug experimentation," says Dasgupta. "We found that barely any articles mentioned options for preventing the harms of drug abuse or options to get treatment."

"Specifics on how one might get high and how it feels are probably things that should be mentioned with caution or even left out of the news," Brownstein adds. "This is setting the stage for research around responsibility in the news."

Contact:
Keri Stedman
617-919-3110
keri.stedman@childrens.harvard.edu

Children's Hospital Boston is home to the world's largest research enterprise based at a pediatric medical center, where its discoveries have benefited both children and adults since 1869. More than 500 scientists, including eight members of the National Academy of Sciences, 11 members of the Institute of Medicine and 13 members of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute comprise Children's research community. Founded as a 20-bed hospital for children, Children's Hospital Boston today is a 396-bed comprehensive center for pediatric and adolescent health care grounded in the values of excellence in patient care and sensitivity to the complex needs and diversity of children and families. Children's also is the primary pediatric teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. For more information about the hospital and its research visit: www.childrenshospital.org/newsroom.

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