Opioids: A 'crisis' of too much or not enough - or simply how rich you are and where you live?

Eur J Pain. 2021 Jul;25(6):1181-1194. doi: 10.1002/ejp.1767. Epub 2021 Apr 6.


The 'Opioid Crisis', which originated in Western countries, has been misrepresented and is misinforming the global public. For 20 years, since the advent of the synthetic opioids, 25,000 Americans, on average, have died annually from opioid-related overdoses. The United States produces and consumes by far the greatest amounts of opioids. National regulations introduced to curb overdoses and restrict opioid availability have condemned many Americans, such as cancer patients or those in need of palliative care, to a life of extreme pain due to lack of access to adequate pain management. As is often the case, US-driven laws have informed and guided international regulations. Worldwide, 83% of countries have low or non-existent access to opioids for pain relief. Over 25 million people are at the end-of-life stage, with eight million people dying annually in unnecessary pain and distress. Ineffectively controlled pain is a global public health issue blighting the lives of billions of people worldwide with immeasurable human and socioeconomic costs. International conventions regulate the trade and use of controlled medications, including many opioids. The goal is to balance widespread access to optimal forms of pain management with restrictions to govern the use and prevent the misuse of controlled substances. Those conventions are failing to meet their goals. International guidelines to inform national legislation have been compromised and withdrawn, thanks to undue interference from US-based opioid manufacturers. The new goal must be to ensure equitable access, for all, to opioids and ensure that optimal pain management becomes a central component of Universal Health Coverage. SIGNIFICANCE: The opioid crisis is, more accurately, a multicomponent global crisis and one that is not fully apparent or well understood. Regulations of the wealthy and powerful to control a surfeit of opioids, which encourages misuse, cannot be allowed to govern legislation in the majority of countries worldwide where citizens have little or no access to opioids to reduce pain and suffering. International conventions must be revised to ensure an optimal balance that allows access to opioids for all those who need them.

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid* / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Pain / drug therapy
  • Pain Management*
  • Palliative Care
  • United States
  • World Health Organization


  • Analgesics, Opioid