You Should Know: Prescription Opioid Use Explodes

Massive Increase in Prescriptions Blamed for Abuse and Overdose

First, a quick background: Opioid painkillers are derived from the same poppy plant as heroin. They reduce the intensity of pain signals reaching the brain while raising dopamine levels in the body, producing a type of euphoria. When taken for an extended period of time, ever-stronger doses are required to achieve the same results. Medications that fall within this class include hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin), oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin, Percocet), morphine (e.g., Kadian, Avinza) codeine, and related drugs.

Until the mid-1990s, opioids were only prescribed for pain from severe injuries or to cancer patients. That all changed in 1996 with the introduction of OxyContin, an extended release opioid from Purdue Pharma. This drug was heavily promoted as less addictive and therefore appropriate for more common conditions. Last year, 227 million opioid prescriptions were doled out in the U.S., making it the most prescribed medication in the country and Americans the biggest prescription opiate users in the world.

Most people start their nightmare descent into opioid addiction after using a legal prescription. The pattern is then all too common: When they get hooked and can no longer get refills legitimately, buy opiates on the street, or steal them from friends and family, they turn to cheaper heroin. Deaths each year from drug overdoses, more than half related to opioids, now exceed those caused by motor vehicle accidents.

Big Pharma Pushes Back HARD on Proposed Restrictions

A growing number of advocates, including former addicts and family members, are supporting legislative measures that would help stem the tide of prescription opioids. However, a recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and the Associated Press revealed that an industry coalition has mounted a 50-state campaign to kill or weaken these proposals.

According to the report, opioid manufacturers and their allies spent more than $880 million since 2006 on lobbyists and political contributions. That’s 200 times more than the money spent during the same timeframe by those proposing the restrictions and eight times more than the formidable gun lobby. Powerful doctors’ groups have also opposed added restrictions, arguing that lawmakers should not tell them how to practice medicine.

Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical companies posted record profits last year on prescription painkillers, generating $9.6 billion in sales.

Prevention, Education, and Solutions

The place to start in discussing prevention is to seriously question whether or not to take opiate painkillers in the first place. If your doctor prescribes one of these drugs for you or a family member, ask about and seriously consider less addictive medications, appropriate therapies and other ways to manage pain. If you do decide to go with opiates, consider these tips:

  • Make sure you’re getting the right medication. Provide your doctor with as much information as possible about your condition and overall health. Tell your doctor about all your prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, herbs and supplements, as well as alcohol and drug use.
  • Stay in touch with your doctor to make sure that the medication you’re taking is working and that the dose is appropriate.
  • Follow directions carefully. Use your medication the way it was prescribed.
  • Never use someone else’s prescription. Everyone is different. Even if you have a similar medical condition, it may not be the right medication or dose for you. Let your loved ones know that it is not okay to share medications with others or take drugs prescribed for others.
  • Secure your prescription drugs. Keep track of quantities and store prescriptions in a locked medicine cabinet.
  • Properly dispose of medications. Don’t keep unused or expired drugs. Check the label or patient information guide for disposal instructions, or ask your pharmacist for advice.

Big picture, you might also want to support proposals in your city or state that would regulate opiate painkillers. Legislation has been introduced in many states that would make patient registries mandatory, thus preventing abusers from doctor shopping. Measures have also been proposed that would limit the amount of painkillers that can be prescribed at any given time. Click here for more information about your state.

 This article appeared in our October 2016 "You Should Know" e-newsletter.