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JAMA Revisited
October 15, 2014

How the Opium Habit Is Acquired

JAMA. 2014;312(15):1597. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.279734

Mr. Virgil G. Eaton tells the public, in the September number of the PopularScienceMonthly, how the opium habit is acquired. He is the writer that frightened the people of the country about two years ago by prophesying that they would all be bald in about a dozen centuries. He now predicts that unless people develop their muscles, rest their nerves, and send the family doctor on a vacation, the residents of our American cities will be all opium-slaves.

For the past year or more Mr. Eaton has “studied the growth of the opium-habit in Boston.” He says it is increasing rapidly, and from the “tell-tale pallor” of the faces he sees he is sure the habit is claiming more slaves every day. In order to approximate to the amount of opium in its various forms used in Boston, Mr. Eaton “made a thorough scrutiny of the physicians’ recipes left at the drug-stores to be filled.” This is the way that one would expect an unscientific and unthinking man to make such an investigation. Having set out to find a thing, he finds it—and is duly surprised. He says he found opium and its alkaloids used by physicians for every ailment that the flesh is heir to, and then he enumerates a list of affections for which he learned they are used. It is pertinent to inquire whether Boston physicians are in the habit of writing out a diagnosis on each prescription. One would infer as much from Mr. Eaton’s article. From his investigations as to the number of prescriptions containing morphine, and the number of these refilled, he is satisfied that it was the opiate qualities of the medicine that caused the renewal. As regards the proportion of opium habitués that begin by taking medicines containing opiates, he places it as fully 25 per cent.—perhaps more. This is only one in four, on his own estimate. Then, within the space of a page he says: “The parties who are responsible for the increase of the habit are the physicians who give the prescriptions.” Now if only one opium habitué in four acquired his habit from medicines ordered by a physician, the other three must have acquired it in some other way, not attributable to the act of a physician. How, then, can the physician be responsible for the increase of the habit, even admitting that they are responsible for one case in four?

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