Although the opioid epidemic has been portrayed in the media as a largely “white” epidemic, a UCF study finds this drug doesn’t discriminate.

The abuse of opioids affects whites and black almost equally, according to a study led by sociology doctoral student Harvey Nicholson. His findings were recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

“When you see news stories, you don’t see a black face,” Nicholson said. “But prescription opioids are causing just as many problems in the black population. Our study found differences in why black and white adults misuse prescription opioids, but the rates are virtually identical in both populations. Our study could be used to figure out ways to intervene among blacks facing this problem.”

Nicholson worked with associate professor of sociology Jason Ford, who has spent more than 20 years studying drug use and abuse. Ford is a co-author of the study.

The opioid drug epidemic is sweeping the United States. Among the more than 64,000 drug-overdose deaths estimated in 2016, the sharpest increase occurred among deaths related to fentanyl and synthetic opioids, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although studies abound about opioid misuse, there were none that looked at black adults when Nicholson began his study.

“It’s important to look at different groups with different factors related to drug use,” Ford said. “Things that are predictive among white populations aren’t necessarily predictive among blacks.”

Developing effective interventions for each population will also require a clear understanding of those populations, and the diverse reasons why they may be turning to opioids, Nicholson said. The solution for one group may not be the most effective for another.

Nicholson, a Health Policy Research Scholar with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, came up with the study idea after reading stories about the epidemic.

“The coverage I’ve seen of the prescription-drug crisis was that it only seemed to be affecting white Americans, primarily living in rural areas,” Nicholson said. “But I wondered if it also impacted different racial groups, specifically black Americans.”

According to the study, three factors  are particularly associated with  increased risk for misusing prescription opioids among blacks relative to whites: education, socioeconomic status and gender. Among only blacks, those who had lower levels of education were more likely to misuse. Black men were also more likely to misuse than black women, and black respondents of lower socioeconomic status were more likely to misuse relative to blacks of higher socioeconomic status.

Depression, illicit-drug availability and other illicit drugs were also predictive of misuse among black as well as white respondents. Poorer health increased risk for misuse among white respondents

“Based on our results, treatment programs for prescription-opioid problems among blacks should emphasize education and mental health. Also, policies to help blacks, such as increased access to resources to improve their socioeconomic status, and decrease the availability of illicit drugs in black neighborhoods are a must,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson came to UCF from West Chester University of Pennsylvania and Lehigh University and has a bachelor’s and master’s in Sociology. Ford has been at UCF since 2002. His Ph.D. is from Bowling Green University and his area of expertise includes substance use among adolescents and young adults.