In the United States, opioid analgesics have increasingly been prescribed in the treatment of chronic pain, and this trend has accompanied increasing rates of misuse and overdose. Lawmakers have responded with myriad policies to curb the growing epidemic of opioid misuse, and a global alarm has been sounded among countries wishing to avoid this path. In the United Kingdom, a similar trend of increasing opioid consumption, albeit at lower levels, has been observed without an increase in reported misuse or drug-related deaths. The comparison between these two countries in opioid prescribing and opioid overdose mortality underscores important features of prescribing, culture, and health systems that may be permissive or protective in the development of a public health crisis. As access to opioid medications increases around the world, it becomes vitally important to understand the forces impacting opioid use and misuse. Trends in benzodiazepine and methadone use in the UK as well as structural elements of the National Health Service may serve to buffer opioid-related harms in the face of increasing prescriptions. In addition, the availability and price of heroin, as well as the ease of access to opioid agonist treatment in the UK may limit the growth of the illicit market for prescription opioids. The comparison between the US and the UK in opioid consumption and overdose rates should serve as a call to action for UK physicians and policymakers. Basic, proactive steps in the form of surveillance - of overdoses, marketing practices, prescribers, and patients - and education programs may help avert a public health crisis as opioid prescriptions increase.
Keywords: Health policy; Opioid analgesics; Prescription drug overdose; Public health.
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