Tag: Opioids

Today’s Drug Abusers Did Not Derive From Yesterday’s Patients

We learned last week that the 2017 drug overdose numbers reported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention clearly show most opioid-related deaths are due to illicit fentanyl and heroin, while deaths due to prescription opioids have stabilized, continuing a steady trend for the past several years. I’ve encouraged using the term “Fentanyl Crisis” rather than “Opioid Crisis” to describe the situation, because it more accurately points to its cause—nonmedical users accessing drugs in the dangerous black market fueled by drug prohibition—hoping this will redirect attention and lead to reforms that are more likely to succeed. But the media and policymakers remain unshakably committed to the idea that the overdose crisis is the product of greedy pharmaceutical companies manipulating gullible and poorly-trained doctors into over-prescribing opioids for patients in pain and ensnaring them in the nightmare of addiction.

As a result, most of the focus has been on pressing health care practitioners to decrease their prescribing, imposing guidelines and ceilings on daily dosages that may be prescribed, and creating surveillance boards to enforce these parameters. These guidelines are not evidence-based, as Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb seems to realize, and have led to the abrupt tapering of chronic pain patients off of their medication, making many suffer desperately. An open letter by distinguished pain management experts appeared last week in the journal Pain Medicine criticizing current policies for lacking a basis in scientific evidence and generating a “large-scale humanitarian issue.” 

Current policy has brought high-dose prescriptions down 41 percent between 2010 and 2016, another 16.1 percent in 2017, and another 12 percent this year. Yet overdose deaths continue to mount year after year, up another 9.6 percent in 2017.

One might expect the obvious prevalence of heroin and illicit fentanyl among overdose deaths would make policymakers reconsider the relationship between opioid prescribing, nonmedical use, and overdose deaths. The data certainly support viewing the overdose crisis as an unintended consequence of drug prohibition: nonmedical users preferred to use diverted prescription opioids and, as supplies became tougher to come by in recent years, the efficient black market responded by filling the void with cheaper and more dangerous heroin and fentanyl.

No Let Up On The Bad News About Overdose Deaths

The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) just issued Data Brief Number 329, entitled “Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States, 1999-2017.” Drug overdose deaths reached a new record high, exceeding 70,000 deaths in 2017, a 9.6 percent increase over 2016. That figure includes all drug overdoses, including those due to cocaine, methamphetamines, and benzodiazepines. The actual breakdown according to drug category will be reported in mid-December. However, estimates are opioid-related deaths will account for roughly 49,000 of the total overdose deaths. 

The big takeaways, quoting the report:

- The rate of drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone, which include drugs such as fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, and tramadol, increased from 0.3 per 100,000 in 1999 to 1.0 in 2013, 1.8 in 2014, 3.1 in 2015, 6.2 in 2016, and 9.0 in 2017.The rate increased on average by 8% per year from 1999 through 2013 and by 71% per year from 2013 through 2017.

-The rate of drug overdose deaths involving heroin increased from 0.7 in 1999 to 1.0 in 2008 to 4.9 in 2016. The rate in 2017 was the same as in 2016 (4.9).

-The rate of drug overdose deaths involving natural and semisynthetic opioids, which include drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, increased from 1.0 in 1999 to 4.4 in 2016. The rate in 2017 was the same as in 2016 (4.4).

-The rate of drug overdose deaths involving methadone increased from 0.3 in 1999 to 1.8 in 2006, then declined to 1.0 in 2016. The rate in 2017 was the same as in 2016 (1.0).

Despite the fact that overdose deaths from prescription opioids—and even heroin—have stabilized, the overdose rate continues to climb due to the surge in fentanyl deaths. 

This has happened despite policies in place aimed at curtailing doctors from prescribing opioids to their patients in pain. Prescription surveillance boards and government-mandated prescribing limits have pushed prescribing down dramatically. High-dose prescriptions were down 41 percent between 2010 and 2016, another 16.1 percent in 2017, and another 12 percent this year.

Policies aimed at curbing prescribing are based on the false narrative that the overdose crisis is primarily the result of greedy drug makers manipulating gullible doctors into overtreating patients in pain and hooking them on drugs. But as I have written in the past, , the overdose crisis has always been primarily the result of non-medical users accessing drugs in the dangerous black market that results from prohibition. As the supply of prescription opioids diverted to the underground gets harder to come by, the efficient black market fills the void with other, more dangerous drugs. Lately, the synthetic opioid fentanyl has emerged as the number one killer.

In a New York Times report on the matter today, Josh Katz and Margot Sanger-Katz hint that policymakers are aiming at the wrong target by stating, “Recent federal public policy responses to the opioid epidemic have focused on opioid prescriptions. But several public health researchers say that the rise of fentanyls requires different tools. Opioid prescriptions have been falling, even as the death rates from overdoses are rising.”

Prescription opioids are not the cause of the overdose death crisis. Neither is fentanyl, despite the fact that it is now the primary driver of the rising death rate. The ultimate cause of the drug overdose crisis is prohibition. US policymakers should drop the false narrative and face reality, like Portuguese health authorities did 17 years ago.

Portugal, in 2001, recognized that prohibition was driving the death rate. At the time it had the highest overdose rate in Western Europe. It decriminalized all drugs and redirected efforts towards treatment and harm reduction. Portugal saw its population of heroin addicts drop 75 percent, and now has the lowest overdose rate in Europe. It has been so successful that Norway is about to take the same route.

At a minimum, policymakers in the U.S. should turn to harm reduction. They should expand syringe exchange and supervised injection facilities, lighten the regulatory burden on health care practitioners wishing to treat addicts with medication-assisted treatments such as methadoneand buprenorphine, and reschedule the overdose antidote naloxone to a truly over-the-counter drug.

Unless this happens, we should expect more discouraging news from the NCHS in the years ahead.

 

Better Late Than Never?

As I have written many times before, the opioid prescribing guidelines put forth by the Centers for Disease Control and prevention have been criticized for not being evidence-based. This has even caused the Food and Drug Administration to begin the process of developing its own set of guidelines.

In publishing the guidelines, the CDC emphasized they were meant to be suggestive, not “prescriptive,” pointing out that health care practitioners know their patients’ situations better than any regulators and should therefore individualize their prescribing to meet their patients’ unique needs. 

That has not prevented the majority of states from implementing opioid prescribing guidelines that place limits on the dose, amount, and length of time that doctors can prescribe opioids—usually restricting the dose of opioids to a maximum of 90 MME (morphine milligram equivalents) per day. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures at least 30 states have implemented such guidelines. These guidelines have caused many health care practitioners to return to the undertreatment of pain for which they were criticized in the 1980s and 90s. And it has driven many chronic pain patients to desperation as their doctors abruptly taper their pain medication or cut them off entirely.

The American Medical Association has gently criticized the misinterpretation and misapplication of the CDC guidelines in the past. Now two and a half years after the CDC published its guidelines, the AMA has taken a more adamant stand. This week, at the AMA’s interim meeting in Maryland, its House of Delegates resolved:

RESOLVED that our AMA affirms that some patients with acute or chronic pain can benefit from taking opioids at greater dosages than recommended by the CDC Guidelines for Prescribing Opioids for chronic pain and that such care may be medically necessary and appropriate. 

RESOLVED that our AMA advocate against the misapplication of the CDC Guidelines for Prescribing Opioids by pharmacists, health insurers, pharmacy benefit managers, legislatures, and governmental and private regulatory bodies in ways that prevent or limit access to opioid analgesia.

RESOLVED that our AMA advocate that no entity should use MME thresholds as anything more than guidance, and physicians should not be subject to professional discipline, loss of board certification, loss of clinical privileges, criminal prosecution, civil liability, or other penalties or practice limitations solely for prescribing opioids at a quantitative level above the MME thresholds found in the CDC Guidelines for Prescribing Opioids.

Sadly, the opiophobia-driven policy train left the station long ago. As an eternal optimist, my initial reaction is to think, “better late than never,” and to hope this new resolution will cause policymakers to reconsider their misguided policy. But the cynical voice inside me responds with a more negative cliché: “a day late and a dollar short.”

 

 

 

As If We Needed It, More Evidence Emerges Showing That The Government Has Changed The Opioid Crisis Into a Fentanyl Crisis

Speaking last week at a National Opioid Summit in Washington, DC, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reported opioid prescriptions fell another 12 percent during the first eight months of 2018, saying ‘We now have the lowest opioid prescription rates in 18 years.” Some of this was no doubt the result of the chilling effect that prescription surveillance boards have had on the prescribing patterns of physicians. For example, Sessions announced the Trump administration has charged 226 doctors and 221 medical personnel with “opioid-related crimes,” and this has not gone unnoticed by health care practitioners.

Sessions also pledged to meet the goal of a 44 percent overall reduction in the production of opioids permitted by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA, which sets quotas on the production of opioids by US manufacturers, began the process with a 25 percent reduction in 2016 and another 20 percent reduction in 2017. This has led to shortages of injectable opioids in many hospitals, affecting the delivery and quality of care.

Meanwhile, the DEA reported in a Joint Intelligence Report that overdoses in Pennsylvania continued to rise, with 5,456 fatal overdoses in 2017, a 65 percent increase over 2015. Only 20 percent of those overdoses involved prescription opioids, with most deaths involving multiple drugs in combination—usually fentanyl, heroin and cocaine, as well as counterfeit prescription opioids (usually made of illicit fentanyl and heroin pressed into pills). The report stated heroin and fentanyl were found in 97 percent of Pennsylvania’s counties.

Prescription opioids were also responsible for just 20 percent of the fatal overdoses in Massachusetts in 2015, where researchers at Boston University reported last week in the American Journal of Public Health that Opioid Use Disorder among people over age 11 grew to 4.6 percent of the population that year. 

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health reports a modest tapering in the fatal overdose rate, from 2,154 in 2016 to 2,069 in 2017, and estimates up to 1,053 have occurred in the first 6 months of 2018. During the first quarter of 2018, 90 percent of those deaths involved fentanyl, 43 percent involved cocaine, 34 percent involved heroin, and 20 percent involved prescription opioids. Fentanyl is responsible for sustaining the death rate in Massachusetts at near-record levels.

What jumps out of these numbers is the fact that efforts to get doctors to curtail their treatment of pain have not meaningfully reduced the overdose rate. They have just caused non-medical users of opioids to migrate over to more dangerous heroin and fentanyl. Fentanyl and heroin—not prescription opioids—are now the principal drugs behind the gruesome mortality statistics. 

Addressing the overdose crisis by focusing on doctors treating patients aims at the wrong target. And patients are suffering—often desperately— in the process. The cause has been drug prohibition from the get-go. If policymakers can’t muster the courage to admit and address that fact, then they should at least put the lion’s share of reform efforts into mitigating the harmful unintended consequences of prohibition. I wrote about this here.

Addiction Abuse

Hardly a day goes by without a report in the press about some new addiction. There are warnings about addiction to coffee. Popular psychology publications talk of “extreme sports addiction.” Some news reports even alert us to the perils of chocolate addiction. One gets the impression that life is awash in threats of addiction. People tend to equate the word “addiction” with “abuse.” Ironically, “addiction” is a subject of abuse.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a “chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry…characterized by the inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving” that continues despite resulting destruction of relationships, economic conditions, and health. A major feature is compulsiveness. Addiction has a biopsychosocial basis with a genetic predisposition and involves neurotransmitters and interactions within reward centers of the brain. This compusliveness is why alcoholics or other drug addicts will return to their substance of abuse even after they have been “detoxed” and despite the fact that they know it will further damage their lives. 

Addiction is not the same as dependence. Yet politicians and many in the media use the two words interchangeably. Physical dependence represents an adaptation to the drug such that abrupt cessation or tapering off too rapidly can precipitate a withdrawal syndrome, which in some cases can be life-threatening. Physical dependence is seen with many categories of drugs besides drugs commonly abused. It is seen for example with many antidepressants, such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft), and with beta blockers like atenolol and propranolol, used to treat a variety of conditions including hypertension and migraines. Once a patient is properly tapered off of the drug on which they have become physically dependent, they do not feel a craving or compulsion to return to the drug.

Some also confuse tolerance with addiction. Similar to dependency, tolerance is another example of physical adaptation. Tolerance refers to the decrease in one or more effects a drug has on a person after repeated exposure, requiring increases in the dose.

Science journalist Maia Szalavitz, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, ably details how journalists perpetuate this lack of understanding and fuel misguided opioid policies.

Many in the media share responsibility for the mistaken belief that prescription opioids rapidly and readily addict patients—despite the fact that Drs. Nora Volkow and Thomas McLellan of the National Institute on Drug Abuse point out addiction is very uncommon, “even among those with preexisting vulnerabilities.” Cochrane systematic studies in 2010 and 2012 of chronic pain patients found addiction rates in the 1 percent range, and a report on over 568,000 patients in the Aetna database who were prescribed opioids for acute postoperative pain between 2008 and 2016 found a total “misuse” rate of 0.6 percent. 

Equating dependency with addiction caused lawmakers to impose opioid prescription limits that are not evidence-based, and is making patients suffer needlessly after being tapered too abruptly or cut off entirely from their pain medicine. Many, in desperation, seek relief in the black market where they get exposed to heroin and fentanyl. Some resort to suicide. There have been enough reports of suicides that the US Senate is poised to vote on opioid legislation that “would require HHS and the Department of Justice to conduct a study on the effect that federal and state opioid prescribing limits have had on patients — and specifically whether such limits are associated with higher suicide rate.” And complaints about the lack of evidence behind present prescribing policy led Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to announce plans last month for the FDA to develop its own set of evidence-based guidelines.

Now there is talk in media and political circles about the threats of “social media addiction.” But there is not enough evidence to conclude that spending extreme amounts of time on the internet and with social media is an addictive disorder. One of the leading researchers on the subject stresses that most reports on the phenomenon are anecdotal and peer-reviewed scientific research is scarce. A recent Pew study found the majority of social media users would not find it difficult to give it up. The American Psychiatric Association does not consider social media addiction or “internet addiction” a disorder and does not include it in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), considering it an area that requires further research.

This doesn’t stop pundits from warning us about the dangers of social media addiction. Some warnings might be politically motivated. Recent reports suggest Congress might soon get into the act. If that happens, it can threaten freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It can also generate biliions of dollars in government spending on social media addiction treatment.

Before people see more of their rights infringed or are otherwise harmed by unintended consequences, it would do us all a great deal of good to be more accurate and precise in our terminology. It would also help if lawmakers learned more about the matters on which they create policy.

The Law of Unintended Consequences Strikes Again

Late last week UPI news ran a report by E.J. Mundell with the headline, “Government efforts to curb opioid prescriptions might have backfired.” It cites two separate studies published online in JAMA Surgery on August 22 that examined two different restrictive opioid policies that fell victim to the Law of Unintended Consequences.

The first study, by researchers at the University of Michigan, evaluated the impact of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2014 rescheduling of hydrocodone (Vicodin) from Schedule III to Schedule II. Prescriptions for Schedule III narcotics may be phoned or faxed in by providers, but Schedule II narcotics require the patient to see the prescriber in person in order to obtain a prescription. The DEA’s goal was to reduce the number of Vicodin pills, popular with non-medical users, available for diversion to the black market.

The study looked at 21,955 post-surgical patients across 75 hospitals in Michigan between 2012 and 2015 and found that the number of hydrocodone pills prescribed after the 2014 schedule change increased by an average of seven 5mg tablets. The total Oral Morphine Equivalent of prescribed hydrocodone did not change significantly after the DEA made hydrocodone Schedule II. However, the refill rate decreased after the change. The study’s abstract concluded, “Changing hydrocodone from schedule III to schedule II was associated with an increase in the amount of opioids filled in the initial prescription following surgery.”

As a practicing general surgeon, my initial reaction to this study was: “Tell me something I don’t know.” Prior to the 2014 schedule change, I would often start off prescribing a small amount of hydrocodone to some of my post-op patients (depending upon the procedure and the patient’s medical history) with the knowledge that I can phone in a refill for those patients who were still in need of it for their pain after the initial supply ran out. Once it was rescheduled, I changed my prescribing habits. Not wanting any of my patients to run out after hours, over a weekend, or on a holiday—when the office is closed and their only recourse would be to go to an emergency room or urgent care center to get a prescription refill—I increased the amount I prescribe (based on my best estimate of the maximum amount of days any individual patient might need hydrocodone) to reduce the chances of them needing a refill. This results in some patients having leftover Vicodin pills in their medicine cabinet. On the other hand, fewer of those patients need refills.

Not surprisingly, many of my clinical peers have done the same thing. It’s not a surprise because most physicians place the interests of their patients ahead of the interests of regulators and bureaucrats. So the adjustment made in postoperative hydrocodone prescribing was basically a “no brainer.” 

Prohibition Is the Obvious Cause of Opioid Crisis as CDC Releases Preliminary Casualty Numbers for 2017

Earlier this month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released preliminary estimates of the opioid overdose rate for 2017. The total overdose rate rose to approximately 72,000, up from a total overdose rate of 63,600 in 2016, an increase of roughly 10 percent. The total overdose rate includes deaths from numerous drugs in addition to opioids, such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and benzodiazepines. The opioid-related overdose rate increased as well, from a little over 42,000 in 2016 to over 49,000 in 2017. This increase occurred despite a 4 percent drop in heroin overdoses and a 2 percent drop in overdoses due to prescription opioids. A 37 percent increase in illicit fentanyl-related overdoses explains the jump in the death rate.

All of this is happening while the prescribing of high-dose opioids continues to decrease dramatically—over 41 percent between 2010 and 2015, with a recent report showing a further decrease of 16 percent during the year 2017.

This is more evidence, if any more was needed, that the opioid overdose problem is the result of non-medical users accessing drugs in the black market that results from drug prohibition. Whether these users’ drug of choice is OxyContin or heroin, the majority have obtained their drugs through the black market, not from a doctor. A 2007 study by Carise, et al in the American Journal of Psychiatry looked at over 27,000 OxyContin addicts entering rehab between the years 2001 and 2004 and found that 78 percent never obtained a prescription from a doctor but got the drugs through a friend, family member, or a dealer. 86 percent said they took the drug to “get high” or get a “buzz.” 78 percent also had a prior history of treatment for substance abuse disorder. And the National Survey on Drug Use and Health has repeatedly found roughly three-quarters of non-medical users get their drugs from dealers, family, or friends as opposed to a doctor.

Media and policymakers can’t disabuse themselves of the false narrative that the opioid problem is the product of doctors hooking their patients on opioids when they treat their pain, despite the large number of studies showing–and the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse stating—that opioids used in the medical setting have a very low addiction rate. Therefore, most opioid policy has focused on decreasing the number of pills prescribed. Reducing the number of pills also aims at making less available for “diversion” into the black market. This is making many patients suffer from undertreatment of their pain and causes some, in desperation, to turn to the black market or to suicide.

Since 2010, opioid policy has also promoted the development of abuse-deterrent formulations of opioids—opioids that cannot be crushed and snorted or dissolved and injected. As a just-released Cato Research Brief as well as my Policy Analysis from earlier this year have shown, rendering prescription opioids unsuitable for abuse has only served to make non-medical users migrate over to more dangerous heroin, which is increasingly laced with illicit fentanyl. 

This is how things always work with prohibition. Fighting a war on drugs is like playing a game of “Whac-a-mole.” The war is never-ending and the deaths keep mounting.

The so-called “opioid crisis” has morphed into a “fentanyl and heroin crisis.” But it has been an unintended consequence of prohibition from the get go.

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