Opioid painkiller crisis seen for middle-aged women

Posted: July 04, 2013

Middle-aged women are dying from overdoses of prescription opioid painkillers at "skyrocketing" rates, more than five times as often in 2010 as in 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

"Mothers, sisters, and daughters are dying from prescription drug overdoses more than we've ever seen," CDC director Tom Frieden said in a conference call with reporters.

The CDC previously reported that deaths from overdoses of prescription opioid painkillers had exceeded those of cocaine and heroin combined.

The new report said more than 6,600 women died from a prescription painkiller overdose in 2010, which is more than twice the number dying from cervical cancer. The fastest-growing age group was those women 45 to 54.

Opioid pain pills often have oxycodone and hydrocodone as the active ingredient and are addictive. Brand names in the category include OxyContin, Opana, Percocet, and Vicodin.

Cocaine and heroin are illegal in the United States and most of the world. Prescription opioid painkillers, however, are legally made by drug companies, including Chadds Ford-based Endo Health Solutions. The legal market is about $10 billion per year.

Relieving pain for chronic cancer patients is among the proper uses for such medication. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, some well-meaning physicians still write prescriptions for opioids when less addictive medication is available or nondrug options have not been tried. Other doctors have been prosecuted for ignoring prescribing regulations.

Women are more likely to be diagnosed with chronic pain, including migraines.

Asked about the influence of drug company marketing, Frieden said: "Clearly, marketing is one of the reasons you get this increase."

In 2007, Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma and three executives pleaded guilty to federal charges related to misleading regulators, doctors, and patients about the addictive power of such medicine. The company paid $600 million in penalties.

Drugmakers have tried to change the way their pills are made so they are more difficult to crush and liquefy. Abusers of those drugs sometimes smoke or snort the product.

A Purdue spokeswoman referred to the new formulation of OxyContin when asked for comment on the CDC report.

Endo, which makes Opana, is "committed to appropriate use and safe use of opioids," spokesman Blaine Davis said.

Contact David Sell at 215-854-4506, dsell@phillynews.com, or @phillypharma. Read his blog at www.inquirer.com/phillypharma.

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