According to new data from poison control centers nationwide, more than 3,000 reports are received each month involving problems with opioid exposure, highlighting the national epidemic of narcotic painkiller overuse and abuse, which cause thousands of deaths each year in the United States.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) issued updated information last week about the serious opioid problems in the United States, indicating that dependence and overdose deaths are a growing public health problem.
Prescription opioids like Vicodin and Oxycodone are part of a category of analgesic drugs, which contain narcotics used to treat severe pain, but carry a serious risk of addiction and abuse. The report comes as federal drug regulators are considering whether to require new training requirements before doctors will be allowed to prescribe the drugs.
“In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the acceptance and use of prescription opioids for the treatment of chronic, non-cancer pain, such as back pain or osteoarthritis,” according to the AAPCC. “The United States is in the midst of a prescription painkiller overdose epidemic, due at least in part to the over-prescribing of opiate medications by health care practitioners.”
Between January 1 and April 30, 2016, there were at least 12,643 poison control reports received nationwide involving opioid exposures, with about 100 case records logged each day this year involving actual or potential exposure. While each report does not necessarily represent a poisoning or overdose, the figures are alarming and add to the growing information about the risks associated with opioid painkillers.
In 2012, the CDC declared the abuse of opioids had reached epidemic levels, killing someone in the U.S. every 19 minutes. Despite efforts to informally raise awareness about the problems, the numbers appear to be increasing.
Estimates suggest that narcotic painkillers caused more than 28,000 deaths in 2014, the highest number of deaths related to opioids to date. The CDC estimates nearly 2 million Americans were dependent on or abused prescription opioids in 2014.
Last week, an independent panel of FDA advisors voted unanimously to recommend that the FDA require doctor training for opioid prescriptions. However, experts have acknowledged that it will be difficult to put this into action, likely requiring Congressional action affecting doctor licensing with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
Opioid Abuse Epidemic
Despite recent moves to reduce the abuse and misuse of opioids, overdoses and deaths from narcotic painkillers continue to climb. Research published in 2013, found opioid painkiller prescription use doubled since 2000.
The CDC announced new guidelines for opioid painkiller use in March. The guidelines focus on chronic pain, excluding cancer, calling for doctors to use other effective treatments, such as talk therapy, exercise therapy and non-narcotic medications.
In 2013, the FDA proposed drug label changes for opioid painkillers, offering stronger warnings and safety language for opioid painkillers, like OxyContin and Vicodin. Despite these changes, opioid overdose deaths and prescription narcotic painkiller disorders increased from 2003 to 2013.
On May 4, Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group, published the expert testimony of Dr. Sidney Wolfe, founder and senior adviser of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. Wolfe testified at the FDA advisory meeting calling for mandatory doctor training.
“If opioids were no more dangerous than other drugs, why do they require a narcotics license to prescribe?” said Wolfe.
Two-thirds of prescribed opioids in the world come from doctors in the U.S., according to the Public Citizen’s press release concerning the advisory meeting. The group remains steadfast, like many others, in calling for doctors to undergo the training before obtaining or renewing their narcotics license.
Some groups, such as the American Medical Association, the largest doctors association in the U.S., oppose the required training for opioid prescribing. They cite the burden it would place on a doctor during a busy day, requiring them to deal with bureaucratic duties that may lead to the imposition of additional legislative mandates that are not in the interest of patient care.
The FDA advisory panel recommended the change apply to opioid painkillers, including immediate-release drugs like Vicodin and Percocet. The current voluntary training applies to long-acting drugs like OxyContin, which slowly release their ingredients over 12 hours or more.
The FDA faces a challenge if the agency moves to act in favor of the panel’s recommendation, which would require 1.5 million doctors across the country to take extensive classes about responsible prescribing.