Courier staff writer
ALAMOSA — Prescription painkillers were designed to ease the suffering of chronically ill patients.
Yet growing numbers of otherwise healthy people are abusing and misusing those same medications, and one federal regulator thinks it’s sadly ironic that they’re causing pain instead of relieving it.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that prescription opioid abuse grew by 313 percent between 2000 and 2010, while overdoses linked to those drugs killed more people in 2010 than cocaine or heroin combined.
“Unfortunately, while these pain relievers often have provided tremendous relief for many, their abuse has reached epidemic levels in the U.S., with devastating consequences to families and patients,” agency official Douglas Throckmorton, MD, said in a statement.
But Throckmorton and others say they’re hopeful they can reverse those trends with the help of charitable groups and the private sector.
The FDA rolled out two important steps of its own this week.
On Tuesday, the agency announced that it will not approve generic versions of the original OxyContin, the brand name of the most popular painkiller in the U.S. The agency also ordered manufacturer Purdue Pharma to install new warning labels on its product, which point out that the reformulated drug is abuse-resistant.
For advocates of drug abuse prevention, the decision came at the best possible time.
The patent on Purdue Pharma’s original formula was about to expire, and if it had, they feared that other pharmaceutical companies would flood the market with cheaper and more dangerous knockoffs.
Purdue Pharma discontinued the sale of its original product in 2010, after the FDA approved a new tamper-resistant formula that aims to discourage abuse or misuse.
The original drug contained large amounts of oxycodone, an opium-derived analgesic. It was designed to slowly release the powerful narcotic over time in order to benefit chronically ill patients who needed around-the-clock care.
Eventually, though, drug abusers seeking a quick and powerful high figured out they could maximize the dosage by chewing, crushing, or dissolving the pills.
However, the newer pills are infused with a polymer that makes it harder for potential abusers to tamper with them. For instance, if someone tries to soak the pills in water, the drug turns into a gummy gel that can’t be injected for an immediate high.
While the new formula reduces the likelihood of abuse, the FDA cautions that it doesn’t eliminate it.
However, it’s becoming a more expensive and less desirable habit for many addicts to maintain, according to a recent study by the New England Journal of Medicine.
The study of patients who abused both versions of the drug found that they unanimously preferred the original formula.
Almost 25 percent of those people said they found ways to get around the new abuse-resistant properties. But in an unexpected outcome, two-thirds of the patients reported that they switched from OxyContin to heroin and other opiates.
“Most people that I know don’t use OxyContin to get high anymore. They have moved on to heroin (because) it is easier to use, much cheaper, and easily available,” one participant said.
That’s not to say that prescription drug abuse in general is on the decline, though.
According to a University of Colorado, Denver researcher, painkiller abuse among children is 40 percent higher than it was among previous generations. Only marijuana is more popular among young drug users, the researcher found.
Likewise, prescription drug abuse among all ages is growing, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.
According to the CDC, the number of people who die as a result of drug overdoses has more than tripled over the last 20 years, and prescription drugs were responsible for most of those deaths.
More and more people are also misusing opiate-derived or synthetic opiate painkillers, the agency says.
In 2010 alone, more than 12 million people reported that they used painkillers for non-medical purposes. The vast majority of those people — over 75 percent — abused prescription medications that doctors prescribed to someone else.
To learn more about the FDA’s decision, go to: http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DrugSafety/InformationbyDrugClass/ucm347857.htm.