Doctors in Maine are prescribing fewer of the painkillers that researchers have found are increasingly common as a precursor to heroin use.
Data published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control show that prescription rates for opioid painkillers dropped in all but Kennebec County while staying basically flat in Somerset, Washington and Lincoln counties from 2010 to 2015.
Prescription rates dropped by about 30 percent in seven counties, including Cumberland, Franklin, Knox, Hancock, Penobscot, Androscoggin and Piscataquis.
The study measures those amounts by a standard unit of prescription strength, equating opioids to their equivalent in milligrams of morphine, per capita.
The drop in most counties comes as federal health officials have cautioned doctors about prescribing such drugs too often and in too high of doses. The Maine Legislature passed a law last year setting new limits on the amount of opioid painkillers doctors can prescribe, as a way to curb the state’s drug use problem.
“The amount of opioids prescribed in the U.S. is still too high, with too many opioid prescriptions for too many days at too high a dosage,” said Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the federal agency. “Healthcare providers have an important role in offering safer and more effective pain management while reducing risks of opioid addiction and overdose.”
Nationally, Maine counties rank slightly higher than average for the amounts of opioids prescribed, with Kennebec, Somerset and Penobscot counties among the top 25 percent of counties.
The data showed an overall decrease in the amount of opioids prescribed in 2015, but those amounts still remained high historically, at about three times the amount in 1999.
About half of all counties saw a decline from 2010 to 2015, but the report pointed out that that the highest-prescribing counties had about six times the amount prescribed in the lowest-prescribing areas.
That could be for a variety of reasons. The study found factors in areas with higher levels of opioid prescriptions included areas with a larger percentage of non-Hispanic whites; a higher prevalence of diabetes and arthritis; population density; and higher unemployment and Medicaid enrollment.
While most places in New England saw declines, the amounts prescribed still surpassed counties in the middle nationwide. Five counties in Maine were below the 2015 median of 649 morphine milligram equivalents per capita.