Health Minister Deb Matthews’ move last week to delist the addictive prescription painkiller from the provincial drug benefits program is a start but it is also an admission of the health system’s failure to properly control a drug that was once aggressively marketed as something of a miracle cure for pain but has consequently caused an addiction nightmare.
OxyContin is prescribed four times more in Ontario than the rate of other provinces, measured in deaths, ruined lives, even growing numbers of babies born addicted. This failure encompasses everyone from the drug manufacturer to the provincial and federal governments, to doctors, to pharmacists to drug regulators and more. The Ontario government’s inability to come up with an electronic records system that could help doctors and pharmacists identify doctor-shopping addicts also bears a share of the blame for the mess.
“Over-prescribing and abuse of opioids – OxyContin in particular – is a problem in Ontario that we take very seriously,” Matthews said when she announced changes that would make it harder for doctors to prescribe OxyContin and OxyNEO, which will soon replace it (it will now be available only through the Exceptional Access Program).
Ontario should take the issue seriously — Canadians use more OxyContin than any country in the world aside from the U.S. “We have a culture of really dishing these drugs out,” said Benedikt Fisher, director of the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction at Simon Fraser University.
Addiction experts, such as Dr. Irfan Dhalla of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, are calling for a national strategy to fight prescription drug addiction. It is not a tap that can simply be turned off by delisting OxyContin. It demands an active and co-ordinated role to help addicts get free of the drug, no matter where they live, as well as a thorough look at what went wrong with OxyContin.
Although synthetic opioids are not new, the introduction of Oxy-Contin in the U.S. and Canada very much changed the landscape of prescription drug use and abuse. In a Fortune article in 2001, Katherine Eban wrote that the U.S. had become a nation of pill poppers, specifically opioids such as Oxy-Contin. “Their chemical composition is such that the U.S. is just a few carbon molecules from being a nation of heroin addicts.”
About 15,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses in 2008 alone – among high-profile deaths involving opioid use was actor Heath Ledger, who had oxycodone in his system at the time of his death.
In Canada, the introduction of OxyContin was followed by a dramatic spike in opioid-related deaths, accorded to research done by Dhalla.
Although it is not the only opioid-containing painkiller, OxyContin is the biggest selling. The company that produces it, Purdue Pharma, generated $3.1 billion in revenue in 2010.
Dhalla told Fortune that “Purdue played a very large role in making physicians feel comfortable about opioids.” Part of that comfort came from Purdue’s claims that OxyContin’s time-release technology made it nearly addiction proof. In fact, addicts soon learned that the pills could be crushed and snorted or injected for a high similar to heroin.
Purdue eventually paid $635 million in penalties for misbranding the drug. It also faces class-action lawsuits and at least one state, Kentucky, is suing the company for restitution of Medicaid payments related to OxyContin. The company, meanwhile, has come up with a new, tamper proof formulation and has been spending “large sums of money” according to Eban, fighting abuse and law-breaking. It also continues to make record profits.
Here at Alevia, this issue directly affects us people seek for medications to ease their pain with dire consequences instead of seeking alternative therapies to help reduce and eliminate their pain such as physiotherapy, chiropractic, acupuncture, massage therapy, naturopath, etc.