Abuse-Resistant OxyContin May Have Helped Drive Down Overdose Numbers: Report

Following the release of abuse-deterrent pills, new research suggests that overdoses on narcotic painkillers appears to be decreasing.

In a study published this week by the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers indicate that the overdose rate for opioid painkillers decreased by 20% since an abuse-deterrent form of OxyContin was introduced to the market in 2010. Around the same time, federal drug regulators removed Darvon and Darvocet from the market, which were two other widely abused opioids.

Oxycodone hydrochloride, more commonly known by the brand name OxyContin, has long been known as a heavily-abused painkiller, gaining it the nickname “Hillbilly Heroin.” However, in 2010 an abuse-deterrent form was introduced that was formulated in a way that makes it harder to crush and dissolve.

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That same year, the FDA announced a Darvon and Darvocet recall, after linking the drugs to fatal heart rhythm problems. The drugs had been the second leading cause of prescription drug related deaths, .

Two years after the change, researchers found that opioid narcotic dispensing has decreased by 19% and overdoses also have dropped by 20%.

During the same time period, illegal heroin appears to have seen a resurgence, with overdoses increasing by 23%. Researchers speculate this may be because heroin is much cheaper and more readily available than prescriptions of other opioid painkillers in many parts of the U.S.

Marc Larochelle, lead researcher from the Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center, and the team of researchers reviewed claims from more than 31 million insured members of a large U.S. health insurance carrier. Members were between the ages of 18 and 64 years old and had been hospitalized or prescribed opioids between January 1, 2003, and December 31, 2012.

Evidence revealed abuse of narcotic painkillers decreased after the formulation change. Researchers warn, however, that while the change can keep those who have already developed an addiction from misusing the medication, it does not prevent the development of new addictions.

Earlier this month the FDA issued final guidance on opioid painkillers with abuse-deterrent properties. The guidance focuses on bringing new abuse-deterrent drugs to market quickly, while balancing access to opioid painkillers and reducing misuse and abuse.

Critics call for more patient outreach as a critical component in efforts to help prevent addiction, including programs devoted to abuse prevention and treatment.

They cite campaigns to educate patients about the dangers of use and addiction, and efforts to get doctors to prescribe the smallest doses possible for the shortest periods of time as being crucial. Treatments to help addicts are also beneficial and highly needed.

“Abuse-deterrent formulations can represent only a portion of a comprehensive strategy to tackle the opioid epidemic we are facing,” Larochelle said.

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