Are 'Abuse-Resistant' Painkillers Actually Effective in Reducing Overdose Deaths?

By May Wilkerson 04/21/15

Critics have argued against the effectiveness of so-called abuse-resistant drugs.

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Business is booming for the makers of opioid painkillers, like Purdue Pharma and Pfizer. At the same time, however, misuse and dependence on these substances has become a growing health crisis, leading to record numbers of overdose deaths. In 2013, opioid painkiller overdoses led to 16,000 deaths in the U.S., quadrupling from 4,000 a decade earlier.

In response, pharmaceutical companies are increasingly working to develop “abuse-resistant” versions of these pills that can not be crushed or injected. But critics argue that these new technologies are not enough to prevent overdoses, since most patients take the pills orally. And research shows that many people who overdose initially got the pills prescribed from a doctor, not from the black market.

In a video posted on Forbes, staff writer Matthew Herper speaks with individuals on both sides of the painkiller debate: David Haddox, an executive at Purdue, the company that makes popular opioid painkiller OxyContin, and Andrew Kolodny, who runs addiction treatment center Phoenix House and is a leading critic of opioid painkillers.

Herper tests out Purdue’s “abuse-resistant” version of OxyContin, called Hysingla, and confirms that the pill can not be crushed or dissolved in water. But Kolodny, who has worked with addicts for 10 years, says “I’ve very rarely come across people who’ve developed that disease [of addiction] from snorting or injecting the pills. People develop that disease from using the pills orally.”

In defense of his product, Haddox states that of the 16,000 overdose deaths in 2013, “the vast majority of those were poly-substance deaths,” meaning alcohol or other illegal drugs played a part. He also argues that painkillers have improved his patients lives, many of whom might commit suicide without pain treatments.

As far as patients suffering from chronic pain, Kolodny argues that “they need access to effective, evidence-based treatment. Giving people opioid painkillers is not going to help. In fact, if someone’s really suicidal because of their chronic pain, you’re putting a potentially lethal means in their hands.”

Herper concludes, “these new abuse resistant technologies, though neat, are not enough of a step to deal with what has become a giant public health problem.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.