Opioid analgesics are essential in clinical practice, but their excessive use is associated with addiction risk. Increases in opioid prescription rates have fuelled an epidemic of opioid addiction in the USA, making statistics on medical opioid use a critical warning signal. A dramatic 150% increase in Swedish opioid access 2001-2013 was recently reported based on data from the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB; Berterame et al. 2016) in conflict with other studies of opioid use in the Nordic countries. This article aims to analyse to what degree published INCB statistics on opioids in Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway and Sweden) reflect actual medical use and study the methodological reasons for putative discrepancies.
Data on aggregated total national sales of opioids for the whole population, including hospitals, were collected from the Swedish e-Health Authority. Total sales data for Denmark and drugs dispensed at pharmacies in Norway are publicly available through the relevant authorities’ websites.
INCB opioid statistics during the period 2001-2013 were markedly inconsistent with sales data from Scandinavia, calling the reliability of INCB data into question. INCB-data were flawed by (a) over-representing the volume of fentanyl, (b) under-reporting of codeine, and (c) by not including tramadol.
Opioid availability, as expressed by INCB statistics, does not reflect medical opioid use. It is crucial to underline that INCB statistics are based on the manual compilation of national production, import and export data from manufacturers and drug companies. This is not the same amount that is prescribed and consumed within the health care system. Moreover, there are methodological problems in the INCB reports, in particular concerning fentanyl, codeine and tramadol. We suggest that INCB should carefully review the quality of their data on medical opioids.

© 2021 Emmanuel Bäckryd et al., published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston.