China Has Painkiller Addicts, But No One Is Counting Them

05 January 2020

In 2013, doctors expected Wu Yi to live only a few more years. He was only 26 years old at the time. Cancer was destroying his body.

After six months of unending pain, Wu says, a doctor at the Sun Yat-sen University Cancer Center in Guangzhou, China, tried to make him feel better. The doctor gave Wu a note permitting him to take a drug called OxyContin. OxyContin is a painkiller created to help people like Wu – cancer patients in the final months of life.

In this December 6, 2019, photo, Wu Yi, who has struggled with Oxycontin addiction, leaves his rented room to go sing songs for money at all night-restaurants and clubs in Shenzhen in southern China's Guangdong Province. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
In this December 6, 2019, photo, Wu Yi, who has struggled with Oxycontin addiction, leaves his rented room to go sing songs for money at all night-restaurants and clubs in Shenzhen in southern China's Guangdong Province. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

But those who take OxyContin risk becoming addicted to it. In the United States, about 400,000 people have died from taking too much of the drug. They died after taking increasing amounts of it to be able to feel its effects.

Wu said no one in China warned him about addiction risks. He said his doctor told him to take as much OxyContin as he wanted.

So he did. And it worked; the drug brought him relief from his pain.

Six years later, Wu was still alive. The cancer was no longer in his body, and the pain was under control. But he was still taking OxyContin. When he tried to stop using it, he found that he could not do it.

"This drug is addictive," Wu said. "One hundred percent addictive."

Painkiller abuse in China

Wu fell into drug abuse the same way many Americans do – through a doctor's prescription. But while the U.S. is battling its prescription drug crisis, China appears to be ignoring the rise in the use of painkillers there.

The country offers few treatment choices for addicts. And it does not count prescription drug addiction in its official count of drug abuse.

Hao Wei is president of the Chinese Association of Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment. He said he believes abuse of prescription drugs is limited in China. But he adds that official data largely overlooks it.

Chinese officials say the situation in the United States is different than the situation in China. In the U.S., they say, the painkiller addiction epidemic comes from the large number of people who are asking for the drugs. They also say use of the drugs is not well controlled.

In China, strict laws and policies govern where and how painkillers can be given. But more painkillers may be available in China than officials admit. Addicts can turn to online black markets for OxyContin and other prescription drugs.

Reporters with The Associated Press found people were buying and selling the drugs on at least 13 e-commerce and social media services.


Wu Yi says his parents locked away his painkillers. After that, he was one of the people looking for the drugs on the internet. He joined an online group of abusers and dealers. They connected with grieving family members who were trying to give away leftover pain medicine after a loved one had died.

By then, Wu was trying hard to limit the number of pills he used every day. In April 2019, he ran out of money and was forced to stop taking OxyContin completely.

Quitting the drug was extremely difficult, however. He was not able to sleep for four days. Finally, a doctor gave him sleeping pills – and a warning. Do not take more than three at a time. Wu took 15.

For weeks, Wu visited a number of doctors to get more sleeping pills. He took so many that the pills stunned him. He did not sleep. Instead, he would fall down unconscious.

"It's good I didn't die," he said.

Doctors finally sent him to a hospital for the mentally ill. But Wu did not believe he had a mental problem. He told doctors he was going through withdrawal – the painful process when someone stops using an addictive drug.

AP reporters later called the mental hospital. The man who picked up the phone said the place does not have an addiction treatment program. And he said doctors had never dealt with prescription pill abuse.

In time, Wu's withdrawal symptoms eased without medical help.

Suffering worse than pain

Another prescription drug abuser who spoke to AP reporters is still battling his addiction. Yin Hao buys his drugs illegally from online drug stores, and lies to doctors to get more.

Sometimes he worries the police are following him, Yin says. He does not want to go to prison. He wants to get help for his addiction.

If he could do it again, Yin says he would change the way he reacted to the medical crisis that started his addiction. He would take the pain instead of the drugs.

I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.

And I'm Anna Mateo.

Erika Kinetz reported this story for the Associated Press. Kelly Jean Kelly adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

addictive - adj. causing a strong and harmful need to regularly have or do something

prescription - n. a written message from a doctor that officially tells someone to use a medicine

epidemic - n. an occurrence in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people

grieving - adj. to feel or show grief or sadness

stunned - adj. very confused, very dizzy, or unconscious

unconscious - adj. not awake especially because of an injury, drug, etc.