Critics Bash CDC Opioid Prescribing Guidelines

By Zachary Siegel 12/23/15

Big Pharma stands much to gain from prescribing at this deadly rate.


Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) drafted a set of guidelines on prescribing opioid painkillers. While it's rare for the agency to step in to advise physicians, the CDC went through with what is yet the largest federal effort to combat the opioid painkiller epidemic.

However, it's a difficult task when Big Pharma cuts you at the knees. The CDC guidelines, intended to stem the flow of opioid-related deaths, were met with harsh criticism from both pharmaceutical companies and physicians who stand to lose profits. Last year, opioid medications raked in over $9 billion in sales, according to IMS Health. It's no wonder Big Pharma would not surrender without a fight.

In 2012, health care providers wrote nearly 259 million prescriptions for opioid pain relievers—that’s enough for every adult in America to have a bottle of pills, according to the CDC. “The bottom line is the opioid overdose epidemic has not abated and appears to have soared in 2014," said Tom Frieden, director of the CDC. "It’s clear that we need to do more."

The agency's guidelines urge doctors to prescribe opioids only as a last option for chronic pain, after non-opioid pain relievers and physical therapy were already tried. Another provision calls for doctors to prescribe the smallest supply of the drugs possible, for the least amount of time.

Such a policy would continue to negatively affect legitimate pain patients, industry-funded groups warn.

Critics also argued that the CDC guidelines went too far and were written without buy-in from the medical community at large. One group even threatened to sue. According to the Associated Press, FDA officials and other health agencies said the guidelines were “shortsighted," relied on poor evidence, and said the agency should scrap it all and start over.

Despite being met with criticism, Frieden said the prescribing guidelines are still a priority.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.