Long-term use of opium drugs increases a person’s death risk by almost twice as much as any other cause – including heart diseases, respiratory conditions and cancer, scientists have found.
The study, published online in the British Medical Journal, raise new questions about the risks of long-term prescription opioids for chronic pain.
About 20 million people use opium or its derivatives. Past studies have linked opium to throat cancer, bladder cancer, coronary heart disease and other conditions.
For the new research -- the first to measure the risks of death in opium users compared with non-users -- an international team of scientists tracked 50,045 men and women aged 40 to 75 years living in in northern Iran for an average of five years.
About 17 percent of participants reported opium use, with an average duration of 12.7 years. 2,145 deaths were reported during the study.
After considering poverty and cigarette smoking, opium use was associated with an 86 percent increased risk of deaths from several major causes including circulatory diseases, asthma, lung disease, tuberculosis and cancer.
In an editorial that accompanied the study, Irfan Dhalla from St Michael's Hospital in Toronto noted the findings are significant for people living in the U.S., Canada and other western nations because millions of patients with chronic pain are prescribed opioids such as morphine and codeine that may carry "risks that are incompletely understood."