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Author Archives: Erin Marie Daly
Two California counties have launched a lawsuit accusing five major pharmaceutical companies of obscuring the addictive effects of OxyContin, Percocet and other powerful opioid painkillers while reaping billions of dollars in profits from the drugs. The companies deceived tens of millions of doctors and patients about the “significant dangers and questionable benefits of prescription opioids” for the treatment of long-term non-cancer pain, according to a complaint filed today in California state court. The five opioid manufacturers — Purdue Pharma, Cephalon, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Endo Health Solutions, and Actavis — concealed the dangerously addictive nature of the medicines while touting benefits that had no scientific support, in order to expand the market for the drugs and boost profits, the lawsuit alleges.
The complaint charges that the pharmaceutical companies marketed opioids as “rarely” addictive, misrepresented the evidence of their efficacy for treating chronic non-cancer pain, trivialized their serious side effects and falsely assured doctors and consumers that opioids were safer than over-the-counter drugs.
According to the suit:
These pharmaceutical companies have a long history of aggressively marketing these dangerous drugs through sophisticated campaigns. These campaigns employ industry-funded professional associations, patient advocacy groups, and physicians to deceive consumers and their doctors about the harms and purported benefits of opioids for treating chronic pain.
Georgia is the latest state to see an spike in heroin abuse following the rise of prescription painkiller addiction, with heroin submissions to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab increasing by more than 300% since 2011. The current fiscal year has seen a 20% increase in heroin submissions, while all other drugs during that period have decreased by 22%, according to this article. Many users claim they started off taking prescription painkillers like OxyContin; when the drug started to have less effect, they began melting and shooting up the painkillers before eventually moving on to heroin, the article says.
According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, in 2012 prescription drugs played a role in 592 deaths in the 152 of 159 counties in Georgia for which it performs autopsies. Meanwhile, several major metro Atlanta counties recently reported a spike in heroin-related deaths: in DeKalb County, heroin deaths doubled, increasing from 5 to 10 between 2012 and 2013; in Gwinnett County, deaths rose from 2 in 2012 to 7 in 2013; and Cobb County saw heroin-related deaths surge from 9 in 2011 to 16 in 2012, according to this article.
Opposition to Zohydro, the powerful new opiate some critics are calling “heroin in a pill,” continues to build, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is strongly defending the agency’s approval of the drug, saying its benefits to pain patients outweigh the potential negative consequences.
Since its approval by the FDA last October, Zohydro has come under fire from members of Congress, state attorneys general, doctors and addiction specialists who have worked to block the pill from being sold in the U.S., according to this article. Critics want the agency to rescind its approval of Zohydro, citing the alleged danger of the drug as well as the growing abuse of prescription drugs nationwide, but the FDA says that instead of blocking the sale of Zohydro based on a fear of abuse and addiction, providers should screen patients before they prescribe the drug and while they are on it, the article says.
The green light for Zohydro, a new version of pure, extended-release hydrocodone that is said to be 10 times more powerful than Vicodin, came after an FDA advisory panel last year voted against approving the drug, citing concerns about the danger of addiction posed by the opioid drug class.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is urging physicians to be more careful about their prescribing habits when it comes to potentially addictive painkillers, and is encouraging their participation in the state’s voluntary drug monitoring program. The comments came at a doctors’ conference where the governor described how deeply affected he has been by the recent death of a close friend due to pain medication, according to this article.
Only about 20 to 25 percent of doctors in the state voluntarily use the program, the article says. Meanwhile, treatment centers in the state reported 7,238 admissions for painkiller addictions in 2010, 12 times more than in 2000, the article adds, citing data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Christie had previously come under fire for rejecting an early version of the state’s Good Samaritan bill, which he claimed was too narrowly focused on encouraging more reporting of drug overdoses, rather than other aspects such as drug abuse deterrence, violence prevention and public safety. In May 2013, he signed an updated version of the bill into law, but partially vetoed a separate bill that would make the overdose antidote naloxone available to spouses, parents and guardians of people addicted to opioids. This March, the Christie administration issued a waiver allowing emergency medical technicians to administer naloxone after completing a training course.
The number of West Virginians who have died from heroin-related overdoses has tripled over the past five years, jumping from 22 in 2007 to 67 in 2012, according to this article. Meanwhile, fatalities caused by prescription pain pills have declined for the first time since 2009, the article says, citing the latest available figures from the West Virginia Health Statistics Center.
Berkeley County had the highest number of heroin overdose deaths, with 36 residents dying between 2007 and 2012; Cabell County had the second-highest number of heroin-related overdose deaths, with 26, followed by Monongalia County, with 15 over the past five years; and Kanawha County ranked fourth with 13, according to the article.
West Virginia has the highest drug overdose rate in the country. Between 1999 and 2004, there was a 550% increase in drug overdose deaths in the state, and drug overdose is the leading cause of death for West Virginians under 45 years old.
A federal judge has struck down Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s ban on the controversial new form of hydrocodone, Zohydro, saying the state lacked the authority to override the FDA’s approval of the painkiller. U.S. District Court Judge Rya W. Zobel noted that the FDA approved Zohydro after a screening process, and said the federal regulatory agency has more power than the state in this case, according to this article. She also said Massachusetts lacked the authority to force Zohydro’s maker, Zogenix, to make an abuse-resistant form of the drug because that formulation has not been approved by the FDA, the article says.
Gov. Patrick issued the Zohydro ban last month, declaring a public health emergency in response to the state’s growing opioid addiction epidemic and taking a number of other steps to curb overdoses and help the addicted. In a press release, the governor said the use of oxycodone and other narcotic painkillers, often as a route to heroin addiction, has been on the rise for the last few years in Massachusetts; at least 140 people have died from suspected heroin overdoses in communities across the state in the last several months, levels previously unseen. From 2000 to 2012, the number of unintentional opiate overdoses increased by 90 percent, he added.
Tennessee lawmakers have given the green light to a bill that would allow criminal assault charges to be filed against women whose infants suffer harm from their mothers’ prenatal drug abuse. The measure, which would allow prosecutors to press assault charges on women if an infant’s “addiction or harm is a result of her illegal use of a narcotic drug taken while pregnant,” has been sent to Gov. Bill Haslam for approval, according to this article.
Driven by the prescription drug addiction epidemic, Tennessee is seeing a dramatic rise in the number of newborns born with neonatal abstinence syndrome. In just slightly more than nine months last year, more babies in the state were born dependent on drugs their mothers took during pregnancy than in all of 2011, according to this article. By the first week of October 2013, 643 babies were born dependent, compared with 629 for all of 2011. The majority of these births involved a mother taking medicine prescribed by a health care provider.
Neonatal abstinence syndrome is a group of problems that occur in a newborn who was exposed to addictive illegal or prescription drugs while in the mother’s womb. Symptoms include excessive crying, seizures, vomiting, fever, and slow weight gain. Some NAS babies may need to receive fluids intravenously; others with more severe symptoms may require medicine to treat withdrawal.
Despite increased media coverage and efforts to crack down on abuse, overdose deaths due to prescription drugs and heroin continue to happen at alarming rates in many states.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick recently declared a public health emergency due to the sharp increase in heroin overdoses and opioid addiction, with many addicts shifting from more expensive and harder-to-get pills to heroin, which is cheaper and widely available. Massachusetts state police say 185 people died from suspected heroin overdoses between November and February, a figure that does not include overdose deaths in the state’s three largest cities; the number of all opioid-related deaths increased from 363 in 2000 to 642 in 2011.
In Oklahoma, unintentional prescription drug overdoses claimed the lives of 534 residents in 2012; state health authorities say about half of them had taken drugs prescribed by their own doctors, according to this article.
In Iowa, the number of heroin overdose deaths rose 700 percent from 2003 to 2012, from one death to eight, according to this article.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a prescription treatment that can be used by family members or caregivers to treat a person known or suspected to have had an opioid overdose. The hand-held device, known as Evzio, rapidly delivers a single dose of the drug naloxone and can be carried in a pocket or stored in a medicine cabinet, according to the agency. Naloxone is a medication that rapidly reverses the effects of opioid overdose and is the standard treatment for such situations, but until now it has been available mostly in hospitals and other medical settings.
Evzio is injected into the muscle (intramuscular) or under the skin (subcutaneous), the FDA said. Once turned on, the device provides verbal instruction to the user describing how to deliver the medication.
Drug overdose deaths, driven largely by prescription drug overdose deaths, are now the leading cause of injury death in the United States – surpassing motor vehicle crashes. In 2013, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the number of drug overdose deaths had steadily increased for more than a decade.
The rise in heroin addiction across the nation, fueled by the prescription drug addiction epidemic, means that increasing numbers of people are in need of inpatient treatment services — but many who need help are contending with a shortage of services and constraints placed on care by insurance companies, according to this article.
Unlike withdrawal from dependencies on alcohol or benzodiazepines, heroin withdrawal isn’t life-threatening – but it is so horrific that many addicts are drawn back to the drug and overdose, the article notes. Because withdrawal is not directly deadly, most insurance companies won’t pay for inpatient rehab, either claiming that the addict does not meet the “criteria for medical necessity” — that inpatient care would be an inappropriate treatment — or requiring that the user first try outpatient rehab, the article says.
Of the 23.1 million Americans who needed treatment for drugs or alcohol in 2012, only 2.5 million people received care at a specialty facility, the article says, citing data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The number of people reporting heroin use in the previous year increased between 2007 and 2012, from 373,000 to 669,000, while nearly 80 percent of people who had used heroin in 2011 had also previously abused prescription painkillers classified as opioids.