With the exception of a great piece on medical billing from back in March of 2013, Time magazine hasn't managed to publish much worth reading. But the forthcoming issue of the magazine features a cover story titled "Why America Can't Kick Its Painkiller Problem." And it's worth 15 minutes of your time, albeit not for the most obvious reasons.
Yes, the article offers a fairly thorough overview of the recent history of pain management in this country. The usual suspects make their appearances (big pharma, Russell Portenoy, the Joint Commission, etc.) and the standard statistics are rolled out ($8 billion painkiller market, 17,000 annual deaths from overdose, more than 200 million annual prescriptions written for opioids, etc.) You know most of this and it would be easy to scan the article and think (as I usually do), "If Time Magazine is only now publishing a story about the problem, we must be making progress..."
But this article turns out to shine some important light on three issues we normally miss when we contemplate the epidemic of prescription drug misuse and abuse: First, that there are incredibly harmful unintended consequences that no one could have foreseen; second, seemingly harsh punitive measures taken against pharma companies haven't put a dent in the problem; third, the FDA isn't helping.
Perhaps the scariest among many unintended consequences is the one highlighted in this article - the rise of Hepatitis C and HIV infections among intravenous drug users addicted to opioids. In January, Scott County reported an alarming jump in new HIV cases: eight new HIV-positive patients in a small, rural community. By March, there were 81 new cases. As of June 2, there were 166 HIV cases in Scott County. Of those patients interviewed by the CDC, 96% reported injecting Opana intravenously. I wonder if there are any injured workers among them. And this is being driven by a formulation that Endo claims is abuse-deterrent. Turns out the supposed abuse-deterrence makes it much harder, if not impossible, to crush and snort the drug. As for cooking it down to liquid form and injecting it? Endo hasn't figured that out yet.
The federal government has taken aim at big pharma's painkiller marketing tactics. Purdue Pharma, makers of Oxycontin, paid a $635 million fine in 2007 in connection with a guilty plea for misleading doctors about the abuse potential of the drug. The next year, Cephalon, makers of Actiq, paid a $425 million fine for misleading marketing. That's more than $1 billion in fines in an $8 billion industry... and it just keeps rolling. What do you imagine the gross margin per pill is for Opana (which does $1.16 billion in annual sales)?
Finally, the FDA has proven to be a misguided and inconsistent ally in the fight against prescription drug misuse and abuse. In the midst of an epidemic, they've not hesitated to add new opioids to the market (Zoyhdro and Hysingla come to mind). They've also focused a lot of energy on "abuse-deterrent" formulations of extended release opioids. While they did not grant Opana ER that distinction, I've held the view for some time that abuse-deterrence is necessary, but by itself, entirely insufficient to stem the tide of misuse and abuse of opioids.
We have a long way to go.
On Twitter @PRIUM1