overdoses from prescription painkillers have become a much more deadly problem than heroin, yet the two addiction and overdose problems are not unrelated. Researchers have found that those individuals who abuse prescription painkillers (opioids) have a far greater incidence of using heroin. Consequently, prescription opioid painkillers are being considered a “gateway drug” to heroin use.
The Connection Between Heroin & Prescriptions
Again, according to CDC data, overdose deaths related to prescription painkillers in the U.S. increased by 400% between 1999 and 2009. Further federal research documents the direct connection between the opioid painkillers and heroin use. According to the NSDUH (National Survey on Drug Use and Health), between the years of 2002 through 2011, the rate of recent heroin use (using the drug within the preceding 12 months at time of interview) was 19 times higher amongst individuals who reported NMPR (Non-Medical Pain Reliever) use.
Nearly all the prescription drugs which are ultimately involved in overdoses originally came from prescriptions, with very few coming from pharmacy theft. Once the drugs are prescribed and dispensed to the patient, these prescription drugs are often diverted to be used by individuals without prescriptions. Greater than three out of four individuals misusing prescription painkillers are using drugs which were prescribed to someone else.
Most of the prescription painkillers are being prescribed by primary care physicians, doctors of internal medicine and dentists, rather than specialists. Worthy of note is the data that it is only approximately 20 percent of prescribers who are prescribing 80 percent of all the prescription painkillers. (CDC)
Different states in the U.S. are experiencing a more severe overdose epidemic than others, with the situation being most severe in the Appalchian and Southwest regions. In those regions of the country, individual states suffer varying rates of overdose, with the most severe being Alaska, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Loiusiana, and Florida. (CDC)
Follow the Money
According to a recent Huffington Post article, Purdue, the pharmaceutical company which makes the narcotic painkiller OxyContin, along with three of its top executives, pleaded guilty in 2007 to misleading patients, regulators and doctors about OxyContin’s risk of addiction and potential for abuse.
Purdue was fine upwards of $600 million dollars, and in 2010 developed a version of OxyContin which was more difficult to crush for snorting or injecting than its original predecessor, all with the purported intent of deterring abuse.
The New York Times article of May, 2007, noted the Purdue lawsuit was to resolve civil and criminal charges related to “misbranding” of the drug OxyContin. The three Purdue pharma executives who agreed to pay $34.5 million in fines after pleading guilty to the criminal violation of misbranding included the company’s president and top lawyer.
OxyContin, a long-acting and powerful narcotic painkiller was presented to the public as posing a lower threat of abuse and addiction because of its time-release formulation, as opposed to tradition and shorter-acting painkillers such as Vicodin and Percoset.
And on that claim of lower threat of addiction and abuse, Purdue launched what many considered to be the most aggressive marketing campaign launched by any pharmaceutical company ever, boosting the annual sales of their narcotic painkiller to $1 billion dollars in only a few years following its introduction in 1996.
Purdue Pharma engaged in the heavy promotion OxyContin to doctors such as general practitioners, those often having little training in the treatment of serious pain issues or in recognizing the indications of drug abuse in their patients.
It was soon discovered by both drug users and those new to the drug scene that chewing an OxyContin tablet, snorting the crushed OxyContin tablet as well as shooting it, could produce a drug high equivalent to that of heroin.
Today, according to a study from the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality done in 2013, almost four out of five people recently starting to use heroin were using prescription painkillers first. The writing is on the wall as the gateway to heroin swings wide open.