'Overdose Prevention Site' Naming Raises Support, Study Shows

A team from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that only 29 percent of Americans are in favor of "safe consumption sites," but 45 percent support them when the name "overdose prevention sites" is used instead.

A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shows that public support rises when opioid "safe consumption sites" are instead called "overdose prevention sites." They said the findings could encourage more jurisdictions to consider using them to combat the U.S. opioid epidemic.

Safe consumption sites are locations where people can use pre-obtained drugs with medically trained personnel on hand to treat overdoses; they are legally operated in Canada, Europe, and Australia, and have been found to reduce overdose deaths as well as HIV and hepatitis virus transmission, according to the researcher. But while U.S. cities including San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, and New York City are considering them, none of them has moved forward to set them up.

The research team's study was published Aug. 8 in the American Journal of Public Health. They surveyed representative national samples of Americans and found only 29 percent of respondents were in favor of "safe consumption sites," but 45 percent supported them when the name "overdose prevention sites" was used instead.

"The lack of support, despite strong evidence that these sites save lives, prompted us to wonder whether changing the language used to describe them might increase public acceptance," said lead study author Colleen L. Barry, Ph.D., the Fred and Julie Soper professor and chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School. "Previous research suggests that how an issue is framed can matter when persuading the public to get behind evidence-based approaches, particularly controversial ones. In this case, we found that substituting just three words boosts public support by 16 percentage points."

"We have a very strong evidence base from sites long-established in Europe, Australia, and Canada that this approach can reduce overdose deaths, decrease HIV and hepatitis C infection, and lower rates of public syringe disposal, and they have not led to increases in crime or drug use in the neighborhoods where they are located," said study co-author Susan Sherman, Ph.D., professor in the Bloomberg School's Department of Health, Behavior and Society.

The study, "Language Matters in Combating the Opioid Epidemic: Safe Consumption Sites Versus Overdose Prevention Sites," was written by Barry, Sherman, and Emma McGinty.

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