Over the past year, the U.S. opioid-abuse epidemic has gained enormous visibility. President Donald Trump has identified it as a “public health emergency,” and a national commission and a commission of state governors have issued recommendations for action. This concern stems from the fact that in 2016 more than 11 million Americans misused prescription opioids, and opioid-related deaths have more than quadrupled since 1999.

To determine what the public believes should be done to address the epidemic, we examined data from seven national polls conducted in 2016 and 2017. Many of the findings may surprise people who have been following this issue in professional journals and the media.

First, how serious a problem does the public see opioid abuse as being, and where do they rank it as a national priority? At present, Americans consider taking increased national action to reduce deaths from opioid abuse a second-tier priority for government action. On a list of 15 domestic policy issues that were possible priorities for Congress and the President for 2017, opioids ranked sixth, named by 24% as an extremely important priority (Politico–HSPH, 2017; see box and table Public Attitudes about the Opioid-Abuse Epidemic.).

A majority of the public considers addiction to prescription pain medication a major problem nationally (53%) but does not deem it a national emergency (28%) (Politico–HSPH, 2017). Substantially fewer people see it as an emergency (16%) or a major problem (38%) in their own community (PBS–Marist, 2017). In a list of national health problems, abuse of prescription painkillers ranks fifth in the proportion of the public that considers it an extremely serious disease or health condition facing the country (28%; KFF, April 2016). Concern about prescription-drug abuse as a public health problem has grown over time. Nearly 4 in 10 people (38%) currently believe it’s an extremely serious public health problem, double the proportion (19%) who believed so in 2013 (Pew, 2013 and 2017). More than 6 in 10 (63%) believe that the problem of addiction to prescription pain medications has increased in the past year, 26% think it has stayed about the same, and only 2% believe it has decreased (PBS–Marist, 2017).