Bioethics Blogs

The Opioid Epidemic is an Epidemic of Stigma

Kristie Serota and Daniel Z. Buchman argue that eradicating the stigma associated with opioid use is an ethical necessity and is critical for population health.


The Government of Canada reports that over 2458 Canadians died of apparent opioid-related deaths in 2016 (excluding Quebec). Last November, an average of 4 people died from overdoses every day in British Columbia. Recent U.S. estimates project opioid-related deaths at over half-a-million people over the next decade. Interventions have been implemented in many jurisdictions to minimize opioid-related mortality, but each year the death toll continues to rise and shows no signs of relenting.

While people dying from opioids in large numbers is not new, the present epidemic arose due to several complex factors. For example, OxyContin was aggressively marketed and prescribed for chronic non-cancer pain. Doctors and the public were misled about OxyContin’s addiction risks. In addition, health professionals receive limited training on pain and addiction. There are also inequities due to the social determinants of health and the harmful effects of substance use-related stigmas.

Stigma, operating at individual, institutional, and social levels, has led to punitive legal, policy, and clinical responses toward people who use drugs. Stigma has also led to chronic underfunding of addiction research and treatment services relative to the burden of disease. Although the current epidemic does not discriminate across the social gradient, stigma disproportionately burdens people from less privileged social groups more frequently and harmfully than others. People with no history of a substance use disorder risk the pejorative label of ‘addicts’ when they are prescribed opioids for pain management.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.