No plan to curb pain pill abuse, despite rising death toll

by Gaye Clark
Posted 10/07/15, 12:35 pm

America’s latest drug epidemic didn’t start in a back alley or on a street corner, but in a doctor’s office. 

The problem of prescription drug abuse has gotten so bad that the government is urging people to turn in their unused medication so it doesn’t fall into an addict’s hands. The five-year-old drug disposal program aims to curb prescription drug abuse, a scourge that sends 7,000 Americans to emergency rooms every day. In 2013 alone, overdoses from prescription pain medications killed more than 16,000 Americans.

Just as the location of drug abuse has moved from dark city streets to upper-middle class suburbs, the types of people dying from overdose are changing too.

“People who are 45 to 54 years old are dying from pills that were legitimately prescribed to them and overdosing in bed, next to their spouse,” said Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer at Phoenix House, a nonprofit drug and alcohol rehabilitation organization. Kolodny founded Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing.

Despite the magnitude of the problem, neither the government nor healthcare providers have a comprehensive plan to curb opioid use or stop addiction before it starts.

The current prescription drug crisis began in the 1990s when the American Pain Society urged doctors to pay greater attention to a patient’s pain, calling it the “fifth vital sign.” 

In response, medical providers began treating chronic pain with prescription narcotics, an option previously reserved only for short-term pain or cancer. Pharmaceutical companies assured physicians opioids were a safe, non-addictive solution for many sufferers. But the death toll from prescription drug overdoses began to mount. In 2007, Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, paid $634.5 million in fines for claiming its drug was less addictive than other pain medications. 

Despite the emphasis on pain and its relief, a 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine estimated more than 100 million Americans still suffered from chronic pain.

Though doctors offered many patients alternative remedies for their discomfort, some in the throes of addiction began seeing multiple physicians to replenish the drugs in their medicine cabinets. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2012 doctors wrote more than 250 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers—enough to place a bottle in the hands of every adult in America. 

“The reason that we have a severe epidemic of opioid addiction is that we have overexposed the U.S. population to opioid pain medicine,” Kolodny said.

This summer, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services pledged $133 million to fight opioid abuse and to expand the use of suboxone and methadone, drugs used to wean addicts off the powerful urge to use heroin, which often follows prescription drug abuse.

Speaking at a conference in Massachusetts on Friday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the Justice Department is making “great strides,” in the fight to reduce drug related deaths. Noting the National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, Lynch said DEA officials collected nearly 5 million pounds of medication, “that is no longer circulating through our communities.”

But more pain medication gets prescribed every day. And despite widespread abuse, new opioids continue to come on the market. Two years ago, the Food and Drug Administration approved another new opioid prescription painkiller, Zohydro ER, despite a negative recommendation from its own advisory panel.

Gaye Clark

Gaye is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course.

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