Tiny Painkiller Junkies?


USA Today reports that "the number of babies born addicted to the class of drugs that includes prescription painkillers has nearly tripled in the past decade." Yeah, because three times zero is still zero. Since addiction is a pattern of behavior that involves a psychological attachment and (in the case of a regrettable addiction) continued use despite negative consequences, "babies cannot be 'addicted,'" by definition, as a group of 100 physicians, researchers, and addiction specialists observed in an open letter about "meth babies" back in 2005. What USA Today should have said is what the study it cites found: The incidence of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), marked by withdrawal symptoms, increased from 1.2 per 1,000 hospital births in 2000 to 3.4 in 2009. During the same period, the incidence of babies born to mothers who used opiates during pregnancy increased from 1.2 to 5.6 per 1,000 births.

A CDC researcher tells USA Today "the prevalence of drug use among pregnant women hasn't changed since the early 2000s, but the types of drugs that women are using" has changed, with opioid painkillers increasingly popular. Since NAS is associated with low birthweight and respiratory complications, the trend is cause for concern, but the 200 percent increase highlighted by USA Today obscures the fact that the overall rate remains very low (about one-third of 1 percent). And contrary to the newspaper's implication, so-called physical dependence is neither necessary nor sufficient for addiction. These babies are not miniature junkies destined to seek out the nearest heroin dealer as soon as they can toddle. Just as doctors avoid abrupt withdrawal in babies (or other patients) treated with narcotic painkillers by gradually reducing the dose, NAS symptoms can be relieved with methadone, which is slowly tapered off.