, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I repeatedly hear the bogus claim that prescription pain killers are a primary cause of opioid addiction. Twice this week I heard Geraldo Rivera prattling about it, blaming the drug companies for the opioid epidemic, expressing his view of the righteousness of the many lawsuits faced by Purdue Pharma and other firms. But these cases are hardly sure wins for the plaintiffs, and for good reason. The idea that pharmaceutical companies misleadingly promoted the effectiveness of drugs like Oxycontin for pain relief, and minimized their addictive potential, might appear credible, but there are a number of factors that argue strongly against these claims. Of course, opioids are legal prescription drugs, approved for pain relief by the FDA, and are generally marketed by drug companies under guidelines established by the FDA at the time of approval. And sadly, the narrative promoted by Rivera and many others is at tension with the needs of patients suffering from chronic pain.

In fact, opioids are effective for temporary and chronic pain relief, and they have been used for those purposes for many decades. In “The Other Opioid Problem“, anesthesiologist Dr. Ted Noel asserts that few chronic pain patients have overdosed or been killed by ODs. According to Scientific American:

A Cochrane review of opioid prescribing for chronic pain found that less than one percent of those who were well-screened for drug problems developed new addictions during pain care; a less rigorous, but more recent review put the rate of addiction among people taking opioids for chronic pain at 8-12 percent [but less than 1% abuse].”

Those prescribed opioids for temporary relief after an injury or surgical procedure are even less likely to develop an addiction. The large majority of addicts are self-selected out of a population of individuals who want to get high. And most of them feed their addictions on opioids obtained illegally, often from imported heroin and fentanyl. Yes, opioids are stolen from legitimate patients, pharmacies, or elsewhere, and sometimes they are prescribed illegally by unscrupulous physicians. That might be the way many addicts get started, but most of the illegal opioid supply in the U.S. is imported heroin and fentanyl.

A causal linkage between opioid prescriptions, addiction and opioid deaths would imply a strong, positive correlation between prescription and death rates. However, Jacob Sullum reports that there is no correlation across states between prescription rates and death rates from opioids. As Sullum notes, this result offers “more reason to doubt that pain pill restrictions will save lives”.

In fact, in a separate article, Sullum writes of other evidence strongly suggesting that those restrictions may have counterproductive effects on opioid deaths, in addition to denying some patients access to the pain pills they legitimately need for treatment. According to Sullum, all 50 states have Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs) that monitor controlled substances and keep tabs on prescribers and pharmacies. These have succeeded in discouraging opioid prescriptions, but research appearing in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that the programs might be doing more harm than good:

“Fink et al found six studies that included heroin overdoses, half of which reported a statistically significant association between adoption of PDMPs and increases in such incidents. … To the extent that PDMPs succeed in making pain pills harder to obtain, they encourage nonmedical users to seek black-market substitutes. ‘Changes to either the supply or cost of prescription opioids after a PDMP is instituted,’ Fink et al. observe, ‘might reasonably drive opioid-dependent persons to substitute their preferred prescription opioid with heroin or nonpharmaceutical fentanyl.’

The FDA has enforced quotas on the production of legal opioids. According to the CATO Institute:

The tight quotas on opioid production contributed to the acute shortage of injectable opioids being felt in hospitals across the nation. It is not only making patients suffer needlessly but places them at increased risk for adverse drug reactions or overdose.”

The FDA’s restrictions were eased somewhat after complaints from the medical community, but the harm continues. At the time of CATO’s report, opioid prescriptions had declined by 41% since 2010, while the overdose rate continued to escalate.

This pattern is all too familiar to those who have been arguing against drug prohibition for years. The flood of fentanyl into the country, and into what is sold as street heroin, is a direct consequence of prohibitions on supplies of legal heroin and other narcotics. But breaking through the puritanical and bumptious mentality of drug warriors is almost impossible. The worse the situation gets, the tighter they turn the screws, doubling down on the policies that have repeatedly failed in the past. Here I repeat the concluding paragraph of a Sacred Cow Chips post from January 2018 on the opioid epidemic:

There are solutions to the deadly nature of the opioid epidemic, but prohibition is not one of them and never will be. If anything, prohibition in varying degrees has aggravated the dangers of opioids. To truly solve the problem, we should eliminate restrictions on the production and distribution of legal opioids for pain management, legalize heroin, and stop interfering in markets. That would be merciful for patients in real pain, make recreational use of opioids dramatically safer, and put an end to the gangland violence associated with underground competition. Second, redirect those resources into … harm reduction programs. [Jeffrey] Miron notes that legalization has worked in other countries, like Portugal and France, to reduce overdoses and opioid deaths. As a political matter, however, these steps might not be feasible unless we get over the cultural bias stigmatizing recreational opioid use as ‘evil’, and the idea that laws and enforcement can actually prevent people from trying to get high.