According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) almost 34 million Americans were misusing or abusing time-released opioid painkillers in 2007. News reports and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) statistics reveal that the problem has steadily worsened in our country.
Today oxycodone is the most abused prescription medication in the U.S. closely followed by the drug hydrocodone. Proposed releases by at least four pharmaceutical companies of purer and stronger forms of these drugs has many worried that our nation’s prescription drug abuse problem could become even worse.
Opioid painkillers are medications that fall under the classification of opiates due to the fact that they chemically mirror opium. Opiates, or opioids as they are most commonly now called, include drugs like heroin, morphine, codeine, oxycodone, hyrdrocodone and methadone. Like the opium which they chemically resemble, these drugs can be highly addictive. The strong pain relief along with the feeling of well being which they produce has tremendous potential for dependency as our current prescription abuse emergency bears witness. Because these medications can be addictive, they are often cut with non-addictive pain relievers.
The drug Vicodin is an example. Vicodin is a hydrocodone based painkiller that is cut with the non-addictive painkiller acetaminophen. For patients being treated for chronic pain, receiving strong pain relief with a lower amount of the addicting pain reliever has been thought to be a good thing. However, long-term use of acetaminophen in significant dosages can create liver problems. In response to liver concerns, drug companies are working to develop uncut forms of hydrocodone.
However, a pure form of hydrocodone could wind up being 10 times more potent than Vicodin. Such drugs may eliminate potential damage to patient’s liver, but addiction experts warn that the purer form of hydrocodone could signal abuse of epic proportions. Four pharmaceutical companies developing the purer hydrocodone are currently in the stage of patient testing. One San Diego drug company plans to apply for FDA approval this year (2012) and aims to begin marketing its drug in 2013. Other pharmaceutical companies are not far behind.
Doctors and drug companies suggest that potential abuse will be countered by smaller written prescriptions which will require patients to see physicians more frequently for refills. Greater physician supervision, they say, should work to prevent potential abuse. Critics point to past failures with drugs such as OxyContin as proof that people addicted to painkillers will get around built-in safeguards. OxyContin was created in the 1990s to deliver powerful pain relief over extended time through a time-release coating. Abusers quickly figured out that crushing the pills nixed the time-release and provided almost immediate highs. When the drug was further formulated to prevent misuse, addicts simply switched to generic forms of the drug without such formulations.
While doctors dealing with patients who suffer from chronic pain are ready to welcome the new and more potent drugs, addiction experts worry that a flood gate is about to be opened. According to a 2008 study conducted by the International Narcotics Control Board, Americans consume nearly all of the world’s hydrocodone (99 percent) and oxycodone (83 percent) already. The potential market release of a purer and stronger form of these drugs is a legitimate cause for concern.