Jeff Sessions On Opioid Overprescribing: People Just Need To Take Aspirin & Tough It Out

By Paul Gaita 02/12/18

"Sometimes you just need to take two Bufferin or something and go to bed." 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions
Attorney General Jeff Sessions Photo via YouTube

Attorney General Jeff Sessions drew criticism for his remarks at two separate events in which he appeared to advocate the use of over-the-counter pain medication, such as aspirin, instead of opioids.

The comments, made before audiences at the Heritage Foundation on February 6 and the U.S. Attorney's office in Tampa, Florida on February 7, were singled out on social media for Sessions' reference to the venerable Bufferin brand of aspirin and for linking opioid use to marijuana and other narcotics, but the attorney general's comments were not as out-of-step as some pundits suggested.

His suggestions actually echoed a number of studies and comments from medical professionals that advocated the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or acetaminophen over opioids for treating non-cancer-related pain.

Speaking at the Heritage Foundation event on February 6, which celebrated the 107th birthday of former President Ronald Reagan, Sessions cited 16 changes to existing laws regarding drug policy, immigration and other issues established by Donald Trump's administration which have, as Sessions said, "[advanced] President Reagan's work of restoring the rule of law." He echoed previous statements regarding recreational drug use, blaming "lax enforcement, permissive rhetoric and the media" for undermining the "essential need to say no to drug use—don't start."

During a question-and-answer period at the same event, Sessions also noted that the "DEA said that a huge percentage of the heroin addictions starts with prescriptions. That may be an exaggerated number—they had it as high as 80%. We think a lot of this is starting with marijuana and other drugs." And in regard to such prescriptions, Sessions said for pain relief, "Sometimes you just need to take two Bufferin or something and go to bed." 

Sessions' comments drew criticism on social media. On Twitter, users posted statements like "Bufferin? Is that still available over the counter?" and "Can we please, please, please get an Attorney General who didn't have to watch Reefer Madness as part of his classroom studies?"

Bufferin, an aspirin brand that includes an antacid to prevent stomach upset, was developed in 1944 and sold over-the-counter by Bristol-Myers Squibb from the mid-1950s until the late 2000s, when it passed through the portfolios of a number of pharmaceutical companies until its purchase by the India-based Dr. Reddy's Laboratories in 2016.

On February 7, Sessions again referenced over-the-counter medication as an alternative to opioid pain relief during remarks at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa.

While addressing the impact of opioid abuse in terms of overdose deaths, Sessions opined that he was "operating on the assumption that this country prescribes too many opioids" before adding, "people need to take some aspirin sometimes." As an example, he cited current White House chief of staff General John Kelly, who reportedly refused opioids after minor surgery. "I mean, a lot of people—you can get through these things," said Sessions.

The Tampa Bay Times' coverage of the U.S. Attorney's event cited comments by Bob Twillman, executive director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management, who said, "That remark reflects a failure to recognize the severity of pain of some patients." He added, "It further illustrates how out of touch parts of the administration are with opioids and pain management."

While Sessions' sometimes-extreme views on drug use and in particular, the dangers of marijuana have been documented, he is not entirely alone in citing the use of over-the-counter pain medication to supplant opioid use.

Several studies have suggested that a combination of ibuprofen and acetaminophen is sufficient relief for acute (not chronic) pain—most notably post-dental surgery—but also in certain cases of bone fracture, sprained ankles or dislocated shoulders.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.