Painkiller drug abuse soaring

By Sandy Kleffman

                SAN FRANCISCO _ Emergency room visits linked to abuse of prescription painkillers have jumped 111 percent in five years, straining the nation’s public health system, a recent study revealed.

                Urgent action is needed to address this health threat, Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday.

                “Overdose with prescription drugs is one of the most serious and fastest-growing problems in this country,” he said.

                Frieden was in San Francisco to talk to the Commonwealth Club about public health and prevention.

                In an interview afterward with Bay Area News Group, he called for action on several fronts to address the growing abuse of prescription narcotic pain relievers.

                Visits to hospital emergency departments for abuse of pain drugs more than doubled between 2004 and 2008, jumping from 144,644 to 305,885 visits annually, according to a study released last month by the CDC and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

                The dramatic rise occurred among both men and women, as well as people younger than 21 and those who are older.

                “At the federal level, we need to look at action to target pill mills that distribute large amounts (of such drugs),” Frieden said. “There are law enforcement interventions that are needed there.

                “At the state level, states need to look at the prescribing laws and ensure that they’re strong enough.”

                Electronic record-keeping systems should be used to identify duplicate prescriptions and stop people from filling the same prescription multiple times, Frieden said.

                The study found the greatest abuse among three types of prescription narcotic pain relievers:

                _Oxycodone products, which include the popular drug OxyContin: Emergency department visits rose 152 percent from 2004 to 2008, reaching 105,214.

                _Hydrocodone products: Emergency visits climbed 123 percent, to 89,051.

                _Methadone products: Emergency visits jumped 73 percent, to 63,629.

                “Doctors really need to not write prescriptions for more than is needed,” Frieden said. “We may need to look at things like whether long-acting pain medication should ever be prescribed out of emergency departments.

                “And of course, individuals need to do better in making sure that they don’t let drugs in their possession be used intentionally or unintentionally in a way that can harm people,” he said.

                Frieden was appointed by President Barack Obama a little more than a year ago. From 2002 to 2009, he was the New York City health commissioner.

                This week, two San Francisco Bay Area families who say they suffered devastating consequences as a result of prescription drug abuse petitioned the FDA urging the federal government to clarify its public comments regarding a reformulated version of OxyContin that the manufacturer claims will be less addictive.

                Robert Pack of the Troy and Alana Pack Foundation in Danville, Calif., and April Rovero of the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse in San Ramon, Calif., said there has not been sufficient clinical data to prove that the revised version of OxyContin will be less addictive.

                “It is critical that the general public and the medical community not be misled into believing without data that the new OxyContin is any safer than the previous formulation,” they said in a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

                Frieden declined to comment on the OxyContin issue.