While availability, structural, and individual predispositions are key factors influencing substance use, news reporting may enhance the popularity of psychoactive substances. Albeit ecological in nature, our finding suggests the need for further evaluation of the influence of news media on health. Reporting on prescription opioids conforms to historical patterns of news reporting on other psychoactive substances.
Historical studies of news media have suggested an association between reporting and increased drug abuse. Period effects for substance use have been documented for different classes of legal and illicit substances, with the suspicion that media publicity may have played major roles in their emergence. Previous analyses have drawn primarily from qualitative evidence; the temporal relationship between media reporting volume and adverse health consequences has not been quantified nationally. We set out to explore whether we could find a quantitative relationship between media reports about prescription opioid abuse and overdose mortality associated with these drugs. We assessed whether increases in news media reports occurred before or after increases in overdose deaths.
Our ecological study compared a monthly time series of unintentional poisoning deaths involving short-acting prescription opioid substances, from 1999 to 2005 using multiple cause-of-death data published by the National Center for Health Statistics, to monthly counts of English-language news articles mentioning generic and branded names of prescription opioids obtained from Google News Archives from 1999 to 2005. We estimated the association between media volume and mortality rates by time-lagged regression analyses. There were 24,272 articles and 30,916 deaths involving prescription opioids during the seven-year study period. Nationally, the number of articles mentioning prescription opioids increased dramatically starting in early 2001, following prominent coverage about the nonmedical use of OxyContin. We found a significant association between news reports and deaths, with media reporting preceding fatal opioid poisonings by two to six months and explaining 88% (p<0.0001, df 78) of the variation in mortality.